Charting a Course for Coal: A Profile of Steven Winberg, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
By Staff, American Coal Council
Steven Winberg is an expert in fossil energy research and development, advanced clean coal technology and natural gas production and use, holding two patents related to nitrogen oxide emissions reduction. He was appointed to lead the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy in November, 2017. When he isn’t charting America’s fossil energy future as assistant secretary, he might be found serving as captain of a 43-foot cruiser plying the waters of the Potomac River.
Winberg characterizes himself as a “military brat”. His father was in the military and the family moved a lot. He was raised all around the country and spent his last year of school in Rome, New York.
He has fond memories of the little town in upstate New York. “I loved the town,” he said, “… the skiing, sailing and hiking. Sailing is my passion, and has been since I was 10 or 11 years old.”
After his high school graduation from the Rome Free Academy, Winberg obtained his bachelor’s degree in nuclear science from the State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College. After college, he planned to go to sea. He did just that, on an Exxon Mobil oil tanker serving the East Coast from the company’s refineries in Beaumont, Texas.
His wanderlust led him to an engineering job at Foster Wheeler Energy. “They gave me an opportunity to travel,” Winberg said. “I worked on startups for coal-fired power plants,” he said. “I really liked the job – dealing with complicated systems and big machinery, but I was always looking at how we could make it better. The issues related to sulfur dioxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) always intrigued me and large power plants led me to looking at emerging technologies.”
In 1986, Winberg accepted a position with Consolidated Natural Gas (CNG) holding several positions, including assistant to the chairman.
“It was the first time I did a deep dive into policy issues,” he said. “Partly by luck, accident and interest I ended up managing or being CNG’s lead on the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) in 1990. It was the first time I testified before Congress, because I had a deep background in emerging technologies and the CAAA amendments were having profound impacts on the energy sector.”
He would go on to add an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh to his credentials in 1991.
Winberg was with CNG for 14 years before leaving in 2000 to join a start-up company, Clean Fuels Technology. In December 2002, he joined CONSOL Energy (CONSOL) and was named vice president of CONSOL Energy Research and Development in 2004.
At that time, CONSOL and the coal industry were going through a rough period. But the markets turned around in 2004 and CONSOL began expanding its R&D portfolio. “It was during this time that I came to know and appreciate the work that the DOE and Office of Fossil Energy were doing,” Winberg said. “I had the opportunity to be part of FutureGen. I chaired that for several years and that’s where my relationship with DOE really established itself.”
In 2014, Winberg went to work for the Battelle Memorial Institute, supporting DOE projects including a proposal to DOE to investigate the use of deep bore holes to store nuclear waste three miles underground.
Shortly after the election in 2016, he was asked to throw his hat into the ring to lead the DOE Office of Fossil Energy.
Charting a Course for Coal
Since taking the helm of the Office of Fossil Energy, Winberg has been an ambassador for fossil energy, traveling the country and the world. He is realistic about the challenges faced by the coal industry.
“Coal in the U.S. has, at least over the last 40 years or so, been primarily used for power generation and steel manufacturing – mostly power generation,” he said. “Those plants I started in the early days of my career are now 40 years old and there are no new coal plants being built. Building them when you have $2 gas is difficult. So, we’ve been looking at other options for coal.”
“A wide range of products can be made from coal,” Winberg continued.
“These are opportunities to use the carbon value of coal rather than the heating value of coal. That’s probably the next area where coal can begin to shine.”
Winberg also sees hydrogen as an emerging opportunity. From his perspective, it has never really caught on before but newer policies are driving change. “Countries all over Europe have a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, and some states are pursuing similar goals. That means we are going to have to deal with transportation systems.” He doesn’t believe everyone will be using electric vehicles and says heavy equipment can’t run on electricity but it can run on hydrogen.
According to Winberg, while people talk about “green hydrogen” produced by electrolysis with intermittent renewables, there is a real cost advantage to producing hydrogen from coal or natural gas. Using fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS) will produce what some call “blue hydrogen”. Utilizing coal with biomass and CCS will produce hydrogen with “net negative” CO2 emissions. “If we can produce energy with negative emissions from coal, that is even better than net zero emissions with “green hydrogen,” Winberg said.
Another key to the future is the full development and deployment of carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). DOE has been at the forefront of the effort globally. “We’re funding more than 100 projects and we’ve moved a number of cutting-edge technologies to market,” Winberg said. “And two of our major CCUS projects are operating commercially right now.”
So, what does 21st century coal look like? Winberg is optimistic. If an 80 percent market penetration for coal-to-products use could be achieved, coal demand would be increased by 300-400 million tons. Demand for coal-to-hydrogen would add to that. Winberg is uncertain how far hydrogen will penetrate into the power, industrial and transportation sectors, and acknowledges a major infrastructure buildout is needed to support it.
While Winberg is optimistic about the longer term future of coal, that is tempered by the challenges of the immediate future. Energy consumption and demand across the spectrum have decreased, and energy prices are down. Many industries shut down or are operating on limited capacity due to the COVID-19 economic downturn. Winberg thinks lower energy demand will continue as long as this economic situation continues. If the economy turns upward, the coal industry may regain some market share.
Predictions are hard to make given the current uncertainties, but charting a course for coal is a challenge worth continued pursuit.