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Trump’s Energy Department pursuing small coal power plants

A coal train in front of a coal fired power plant.
A train carrying cars loaded with coal. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

HOUSTON — The Trump administration is set to ask companies to help the government develop small-scale coal-fired power plants, a top agency official told Axios Tuesday on the sidelines of a major energy conference here.

Why it matters: Such technology is largely unheard of — today’s coal-fired power plants in the U.S. are big and not easily turned on or off. The Energy Department’s pursuit of these plants among the strongest signals of President Trump’s desire to revive coal despite market trends going in the opposite direction.

Gritty details: Steve Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the department, said smaller coal plants would be able to better complement an electricity grid that has growing amounts of intermittent wind and solar power and be able to include other technology that captures carbon emissions

Another department official said the funding opportunity would be “competitive and require a cost share.” The department plans to issue a request for proposal on initial designs, and then will do more conditional on funding, the official said.

Winberg didn’t mention climate change as a concern, reiterating the Trump administration’s overall position of dismissing the issue altogether. But when pressed he said: “I think climate change is a big concern by many people so we have to address it.”

The big picture: Coal-fired electricity in America, by far the dirtiest source, has been declining over the last decade because of cheap natural gas, environmental regulations, increased concern about climate change and renewable energy.

Winberg says he hopes coal could survive if these small power plants are successful even amid market trends going the other direction.

“If we’re successful with these small modular coal plants … that could be a paradigm shift,” Winberg said.

Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst getting his Ph.D at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, said he hadn’t heard of small modular coal plants in any modern context. “You mean like the kind we used to build in 1920?” He said. “It sounds like going backwards to an earlier generation of smaller plants.”

Haley Britzky 7 hours ago
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Zuckerberg happy to testify if it is "the right thing to do”

A portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
A portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he would be "happy" to testify before Congress if it was "the right thing to do," in an interview with CNN's Laurie Segall.

Why it matters: Facebook has been under the microscope lately for what Zuckerberg called earlier today the "Cambridge Analytica situation." Zuckerberg said if he was the "person...who will have the most knowledge," then he'd be the one to testify in the face of Facebook's data-collection situation.

Shannon Vavra 24 mins ago
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What it's like to negotiate with North Korea

Cups and a weapon.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

President Trump may find himself in a difficult position as soon as he sits down with Kim Jong-un, according to Jim Walsh, who has been in the room for previous talks and says North Korea’s first pitch is often a curveball.

“I’ve been in settings [in which they] set it at the top of the meeting, ‘we’re not going to talk about denuclearization,’" Walsh told Axios. "People on the other side say ‘why the hell are we meeting?’”