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Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Coal will probably continue to decline as a fuel for U.S. power plants, the secretary of energy said Friday, but it might supply the rare earth elements needed in batteries that support renewables.

The secretary announced a $64 million Coal FIRST research initiative to develop smaller, cleaner coal power plants, but primarily as a technology to export, he said. The coal funding is dwarfed by the $125.5 million DOE just announced for solar research.

“Coal as a percentage of U.S. electricity generation is declining and will probably continue to decline for some time,” Sec. Dan Brouillette told the Atlantic Council on Friday. “The effort that we’re undertaking is not to subsidize the industry and preserve their status, if you will, as a large electricity generator. It is simply to make the product cleaner and to look for alternative uses for this product.”

 Among those alternative uses? Supporting renewables:

“Coal can be in some respects—or we hope, at least, we’ll find out the answer to it—a source of critical minerals, a source of rare earth elements, which leads us to better battery storage capabilities, which allows us to bring even more renewables online.”

The message differs markedly from President Trump’s repeated vows to save the coal industry:

“Obama has decimated the coal industry, decimated it. And we’re going to bring the coal industry back folks. We’re going to bring it back,” Trump said in Louisville, KY March 1, 2016. “We’re sending our coal over to China, and they’re using our coal. We can’t use it.”

But on Friday, Brouillette identified Asia as the largest future customer for American coal.

“I think you’re going to look for purposes of export opportunities,” he said. “Asia in particular has been a strong customer. That’s why the USMCA was so important. We hope to work more collaboratively with both Mexico and Canada to find export facilities to get the coal from places like Wyoming and out in the western part over to Asia, because there’s a very, very strong demand for coal.”

Africa and Eastern Europe will provide export opportunities for coal from the East Coast, he said. Brouillette was appointed energy secretary in December.

The coal industry in the U.S. has declined even faster under Trump than under Obama, largely because of competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables.