A coal-fired power plant in West Virginia has been restarted this week after around three months off the grid. And the company that bought it with promises of converting it to run on hydrogen confirms to Hydrogen Insight that it will actually continue to run on coal for 18-24 months.

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Pleasants Power Station had been on the brink of closure since 2018 and in March this year, finally seemed set for shutdown when then-owner Energy Harbor announced it would deactivate the coal-fired power plant by June 2023 unless it could be sold to a new company.

But in July, California-based Omnis Fuel Technologies was cleared by regulators to buy the asset for an undisclosed sum, with the promise of building a hydrogen production facility and converting the plant’s boilers to run on H2.

However, on Wednesday morning this week, Pleasants Power Station started generating electricity from its coal-fired boilers again — with comments from state government officials indicating that it would actually use more coal than ever before in its new lease of life.

“For the first time ever, the Pleasants Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant, is taking new life right in front of our eyes. Today, I am here to share with you that Omnis Fuel Technologies has restarted the Pleasants Power Plant and is on the grid today,” said West Virginia’s governor Jim Justice.

“Coal is such an important part of our economy and our state’s history, and Omnis will use coal to produce hydrogen, graphite, and water vapor. They are going to more than double the amount of coal they need to operate the plant annually,” he added.

Omnis plans to use a patented “quantum pyrolysis” method, which processes hydrocarbons such as coal at extremely high temperatures over 3,000°C to produce hydrogen and solid carbon such as graphite, which the company claims can be sold as a critical material in its own right for batteries, nuclear reactors, and refractories.

It is unclear whether the energy to heat this process will be renewable and whether greenhouse gases are fully captured.

Omnis’ website also indicates that it only considers scope 1 and 2 emissions in its claim that converting Pleasants Power Station will reduce 100% of emissions, which could that upstream coal mining for feedstock will not be accounted for.

And while the firm has pegged $800m to develop this project, COO Richard Hulme confirms to Hydrogen Insight that the pyrolysis facility will only be built, and the power plant converted to run on hydrogen, in 18-24 months.

“When that project is complete, we will run on hydrogen into the future,” he added.

In the meantime, the California-based company will actually burn emissions-intensive coal for power for up to two years.

According to Omnis’ own projections for emissions avoided by retrofitting it to run on hydrogen, the plant could emit around 3.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for each year it continues to burn coal.

West Virginia, historically a major centre for coal mining, already generates 91% of its electricity from coal-fired power, with the US Energy Information Administration estimating that the state’s electric utilities produced around 43 million tonnes of CO2 from burning coal in 2021.

Renewable energy meanwhile only made up 5% of the state’s electricity mix, while fossil gas-fired power — which has replaced coal as the dominant power source since the 1990s for neighbouring states Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania — represented just over 4%.

This could be increasingly at odds with the national target for 100% “carbon pollution-free” electricity generation by 2035. The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed that all coal-fired power plants will have to use carbon capture and storage equipment with a 90% capture rate by 2040 — yet to be proven commercially and adding to already high operational costs.

And amid a decades-long downturn in coal mining jobs, West Virginia’s officials have started to place bets on hydrogen, with the state applying as part of the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub for up to $1bn in federal funding.

The governor’s office had also last month put its support behind a $2bn blue hydrogen complex — with a similar lack of details to Omnis on how exactly it will achieve “zero carbon intensity” for H2 production from fossil gas.

On paper, converting former coal power plants to hydrogen production facilities makes some sense, since these sites would already have a grid connection and water allocated that could be repurposed for electrolysis or processing gas feedstock into H2.

The West Virginia governor’s office also suggests that not only were around 160 people kept in employment as a result of keeping Pleasants Power Station open, but the expansion of the facility to produce graphite and hydrogen will create 600 more jobs.

But the restart of the coal-fired power plant seems to lend credence to environmentalist criticism that promises to convert fossil fuel-fired facilities to run on H2 will actually extend the lifetime of polluting power sources — and make it that much harder to eliminate emissions over the coming decades.