Coal Power Plants: Opportunities Exist for DOE to Provide Better Information on the Maturity of Key Technologies to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions

GAO-10-675 Published: Jun 16, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2010.
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Coal power plants generate about half of the United States' electricity and are expected to remain a key energy source. Coal power plants also account for about one-third of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 ), the primary greenhouse gas that experts believe contributes to climate change. Current regulatory efforts and proposed legislation that seek to reduce CO2 emissions could affect coal power plants. Two key technologies show potential for reducing CO2 emissions: (1) carbon capture and storage (CCS), which involves capturing and storing CO2 in geologic formations, and (2) plant efficiency improvements that allow plants to use less coal. The Department of Energy (DOE) plays a key role in accelerating the commercial availability of these technologies and devoted more than $600 million to them in fiscal year 2009. Congress asked GAO to examine (1) the maturity of these technologies; (2) their potential for commercial use, and any challenges to their use; and (3) possible implications of deploying these technologies. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed reports and interviewed stakeholders with expertise in coal technologies.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy To improve decision making and oversight for coal research efforts, including how technological maturity is measured and reported, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Office of Fossil Energy to develop a standard set of benchmarks to gauge the maturity of key technologies and report to Congress on the maturity of these technologies. As part of this process, the Office of Fossil Energy should consider consulting DOE's Technology Readiness Assessment Guide to develop benchmarks and reporting requirements.
Closed – Implemented
Based in part upon our work, DOE's Office of Fossil Energy developed a system to gauge the maturity of technologies and used this system to describe coal technologies in a December 2012 report. In this report, the Office of Fossil Energy developed a set of Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) to describe the maturity of carbon capture and storage technologies and other advanced technologies for coal power plants, and used these TRLs to describe the technological maturity of 285 coal-related projects being overseen by DOE. For example, the report stated that 42 technologies were strong candidates to be demonstrated at a larger scale. In this report, the Office of Fossil Energy noted that these TRLs provide a clearer picture of the status of technologies and can be used to inform planning for future research. This office plans to provide updated status reports on coal technologies on a biannual basis.

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