How Does U.S. Coal Power Plant Efficiency Stack Up?

power plant efficiency

When it comes to coal power plants, efficiency is the name of the game.

Ultimately, more efficiency means fewer bottom-line costs. Higher efficiency ratings mean that coal is more competitive against natural gas and renewables. All other things considered equal, pursuing higher efficiency can be one of the best decisions a plant operator can make.

But how do American coal power plants stack up across the world in terms of efficiency? What’s the most efficient coal plant in the U.S.? And what challenges exist with American plants when it comes to improving efficiency?

America Lags Behind Three Global Leaders

The Clean Coal Centre at the International Energy Agency surveyed coal industries across the globe for typical efficiency ratings, specifically how far each region has come in deploying HELE (high-efficiency, low-emission) plants.

According to the survey, the United State’s domestic coal industry lags behind Japan, China, and the European Union, in that order.

The average efficiency rating in the U.S. is 37.4 percent, while Japan’s rating is 41.6 percent. China clocks in at 38.6 percent, and the European Union boasts a 38 percent.

As far as individual plants go, the most efficient plant in the world is the Nordjylland Power Station in Denmark, with an efficiency rate of 47 percent. The most efficient domestic plant is the John Turk Jr. plant in Arkansas – the nation’s sole ultra-supercritical plant – with a rating of 42 percent.

The differences between the top slot and the U.S. may appear small on paper, but in practice the disparity represents a substantial difference and a lot of missing potential for American plants.

Challenges Facing the Domestic Industry

The American coal industry lags behind the other three major users of coal for a few different reasons, all of which are related to each other.

To begin with, new construction of coal power plants has ground to a halt over the past decade. There’s currently only one plant that is being constructed/commissioned (a combined cycle facility in Kemper County, Mississippi). The rise of natural gas – and renewables, to an extent – has increased competition against coal. Stronger regulations regarding emissions constitute another reason for the slowdown. As a result, coal plants are older than some other regions in the world.

Plus, the presence of HELE plants is minimal. Most coal plants in the U.S. are subcritical; some are supercritical while only one is ultra-supercritical. Moving from one stage to the next is capital-intensive, and developers have been reluctant to invest capital in supercritical and ultra-supercritical plants in an uncertain regulatory environment. (Ironically, though, more advanced plants are far better at reducing emissions than older units.)

Increasing Efficiency in Domestic Plants

Fortunately, plant owners can increase plant efficiency without having to build new, more advanced plants.

Retrofitting older equipment – from material handling to the boilers themselves – can have a substantial impact. Upgrading boilers in particular is one of the most cost-effective ways to yield as much efficiency as possible. Additionally, not every engineering solution designed to boost efficiency has to be costly and complex. Even relatively-simple improvements can result in noticeable improvement.

It may be a decade or more before coal production is on par with the world’s leaders in efficiency. But currently, American coal plants are actually leading globally when it comes to technology that makes coal more competitive, including carbon capture and storage. Plus, with coal-friendly administrations in power, the path forward to more advanced, efficient technology is not as arduous as it once seemed.