A Promising Technology for Efficiently Generating Electricity From Coal

EMD-80-14: Published: Feb 11, 1980. Publicly Released: Feb 11, 1980.

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A review of the status, potential, and alternative Federal strategies for development of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), a promising but relatively unproven technology for generating electricity from coal, was undertaken. Systems developed using this technology generate electricity by moving super-hot electrically charged gas through a powerful magnetic field. The strong points of these systems are their potentially high operating efficiencies and low environmental emissions. Their weak points are the many technical problems associated with using coal as their fuel. Commercial-scale systems using coal are still about 20 years away. Another weak point is that although the Department of Energy (DOE) will have spent about $273 million to develop MHD by 1979, it will cost about $2 billion through the 1980's to continue to develop and demonstrate the technology. At present, DOE has developed a two-phased MHD program which calls for testing at three new larger-than-laboratory United States facilities and a $372 million pilot plant. Because DOE plans to use test results from the three new test facilities as the basis for a pilot plant design, testing delays at these facilities could affect the quality of information available to support the design. DOE has already experienced from 2-month to 1-year delays in starting testing at the three facilities. Also reviewed was the essentially conservative United States MHD program and how it compared to the Soviet Union's program which can be described as building a large plant based on results at relatively small facilities and accepting the risk that costly changes may have to be made to the plant to make the effort technically successful.

DOE's MHD program is now midway into the first phase. GAO believes that DOE should strive to maintain its test schedule. Options for minimizing delays in the program include: (1) modifying design of the larger-than-laboratory Component Development and Integration Facility; (2) using overtime at that facility; and (3) modifying test plans at the other two new facilities. If more delays occur, however, and these options cannot provide sufficient test results to effectively design a pilot plant, DOE should reexamine the pilot plant schedule. Technology development could be accelerated by accelerating and/or skipping pilot plant design and construction. However, the risks of premature design of a major coal burning facility because of insufficient design data are high. A decision to adopt this or another approach to accelerate the technology's development should be based on a thorough analysis of the potential risks and benefits. Before the Government decides whether to request congressional approval for preliminary design of a MHD pilot plant, DOE should select one of three pilot plant alternatives; a Government-owned-and-operated plant, a joint Government-utility plant, or a Government-owned-and-operated plant. Advantages of the joint facilities include: (1) involving users more directly in MHD development, which could facilitate commercialization, and (2) lower construction costs to the Government.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should require a report from DOE's Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy before the 1981 pilot plant design decision that should include an evaluation of: (1) the status of component delivery and testing at the three new test facilities; (2) the advantages, disadvantages, and trade-offs of the use of overtime, design modifications, and other ways to minimize delays in the pilot plant design scedule; and (3) the advantages, disadvantages, and trade-offs of a Government-owned-and-operated, joint Government-utility, and a joint Government-industry pilot plant. GAO also recommended that the Secretary of Energy establish a mechanism such as periodic regional users' meetings and surveys to actively involve electric utilities and industries that use large amounts of electricity in the program.

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