Thursday, July 02, 2009

NY Times Attack on FutureGen Not "Fit to Print"

Op-Ed piece throws FutureGen under the bus in IGCC / Clean Coal Blooper

On June 28, the New York Times carried an Op-Ed piece by "author/journalist/lecturer" Gregg Easterbrook entitled "The Dirty War On Clean Coal" that raises serious questions about the Times' 100+ year-old motto "All The News That's Fit To Print". (In case you can't open the link to the actual piece, I've repeated it at the bottom of this posting.)

Rather than the Times having Easterbrook's work pre-viewed by their energy staff, it would appear that the op-ed page editor had full freedom to publish, and was either totally blind to the issues and/or was just as technically inept as is the author.

The following letter was sent by this writer to the author. Others have sent letters to the Times editor to suggest that they should be embarrassed by the piece.

In the words of one industry executive: I was also appalled at the uninformed inconsistency of Eastbrook's Op Ed. It was an embarrassment to the New York Times for them to publish such a poorly researched work that was so full of factual errors.

Read on and tell us what you think. If you get turned on by the issue the way that we were, write your own letter the the NY Times editor to help set them straight. At least they may try to do a better job researching such technical matters, rather than just exploiting it as the political issue that it has become.

Dear Mr. Easterbrook,

Where shall I begin?

I'm still so upset about your Op-Ed piece "The Dirty War Against Clean Coal" in the June 28 issue of the New York Times that I'm not sure just how to start to tell you.

I've been closely involved with the subject of IGCC and clean coal for many years, and, of late, I have been writing articles in Gas Turbine World Magazine on the subject. Frankly, my readership compared to yours is quite small. Even our blog is visited only a few times a day. But I know that my audience is technically astute and I'm careful to make sure that I'm technically accurate and fundamentally sound in my editorial commentary.

When I read your piece I couldn't believe that something with so many technical errors and mis-statements is being read by so many - not only in print but also by the wide on-line audience enjoyed by

First of all, how can you pretend to know what you are talking about when you don't even realize that the FutureGen project, which you condemn, is, in fact, exactly what you are trying to promote?

FutureGen as currently configured will be a state-of-the-art IGCC plant, which you say you favor for immediate deployment. It will be fitted with an added chemical process step to remove CO2.

Moreover, the fact of the matter is that GE will almost certainly be offering to FutureGen essentially the same technologies - gasification and power generation -that they have sold commercially to Duke Energy for Edwardsport.

So, FutureGen will not be an R&D "experiment" as you make it out to be. It will be a working IGCC plant, just as you are suggesting should be built right now.

The CO2 capture technology that would be used to remove at least 60% of the CO2 (and thereby give the plant at minimum the same carbon footprint as a modern natural gas fired combined cycle plant) is very old chemistry that is in use in numerous chemical plants where CO2 has to be removed from gas streams.

It is not new and unproven as you intimate. In fact, it is being used in the Dakota Gasification plant in North Dakota where coal is used to manufacture synthetic natural gas (SNG, which is essentially methane). For more information on that operation you should visit

By the way, that plant was built with Synthetic Fuels Corporation support and was taken over by private operators. So your comment about how the SFC didn't accomplish anything is off base. The predecessor to the successful Wabash (IN) IGCC plant was also supported by the SFC.

At the Dakota plant, the CO2 used to be vented directly into the atmosphere. Since 2005 it has been collected and sent by a 200 mile pipeline to Alberta, Canada for use in pressurizing an old oil field to enhance production. This is the sort of thing being planned for the CO2 collected at the FutureGen project, although they are primarily considering some form of geologic injection or injecting into a deep saline aquifer.

So, contrary the picture that you painted, FutureGen will combine two proven technologies: an IGCC plant using an F-class gas turbine and conventional CO2 removal chemistry. It will not be an R&D project in its initial configuration. It has been carefully planned as a plant that will not - repeat will not - use unproven technology and risk being a white elephant. If they build it - it will work. And it should go forward to provide a useful demonstration of the marriage of these two technologies.

Another issue that I had with your piece is that you seem to be inferring that the new Duke Energy Edwardsport IGCC plant will be the first commercial scale coal-based IGCC plant. Are you not aware that the first successful IGCC plants in the US were operating in California and Louisiana more than 20 years ago?

Are you not aware of the operating plants (since the mid-90s) in Wabash, Indiana and Tampa, Florida?

Are you also not aware of two large coal-based IGCC plants operating in Europe? What about 10 or more IGCC plants that operate on refinery residue in the US and Europe?

You should have taken time to learn about those plants so you could be more accurate when write about these things.

And, by the way, your entire premise about IGCC cutting CO2 emissions by one-third compared to conventional coal plants is way off base. For it to be correct, the heat rate or efficiency of an IGCC plant would have to be one-third better than conventional coal. That just isn't the case.

Unless you are comparing new IGCC plants to very old coal-fired plants, the fact of the matter is that the heat rate or efficiency of modern coal plants (where they burn coal as they have for a hundred year, as you put it) is not that much worse than that of IGCC plants. So the amount of coal used to generate the same amount of electricity in an IGCC plant and a new conventional coal plant is not all that different.

Therefore, the amount of CO2 emitted by the two coal-based power generation technologies per kilowatt hour of electricity is not that different. Please see the attached chart which illustrates this fact. It came from a DOE presentation a few years ago, but is still very valid.

On this basis, your idea of promoting IGCC as a way to cut CO2 emissions by one-third is totally in error - and makes your entire position technically unsound. This sort of erroneous argument does not help the case of IGCC.

What is true - and you do touch on this - is that removing CO2 in a pre-combustion mode from syngas (i.e. using coal gasification and IGCC) is much more practical and economical than removing CO2 from the exhaust of a conventional coal-fired power plant.

This is the main argument in favor of IGCC for new plants, that is, when there is regulatory pressure on the removal of CO2 from coal-based power generators, it will be more economical to build IGCC plants with CO2 removal than to build conventional plants with CO2 removal.

As you could see, although I agree with you that gasification has its advantages over conventional coal burning, I have many issues with your piece and it aggravates me that the New York Times would publish it without first consulting with someone who knows something about the technology and the technical issues before letting it go out to such a wide audience.

Yours very truly,

Harry Jaeger
Gasification Editor
Gas Turbine World Magazine

Following is the Op-Ed piece published on June 28 in the N.Y. Times.

The Dirty War Against Clean Coal

WHILE President Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal to reduce greenhouse gases has been the big topic of recent environmental debate, the White House has also been pushing a futuristic federal project to build a power plant that burns coal without any greenhouse gases.

Sounds great, right? Except the idea is a rehash of a proposal that went bust the first time around. More important, the technology already exists to make huge reductions in greenhouse emissions from coal, allowing power companies to begin cutting the carbon footprint of coal today. Instead, advanced-technology coal power sits on the shelf while regulators wait to see what happens with a project that may be just an expensive boondoggle.

The big project, a public-private partnership called FutureGen, was first announced by George W. Bush in 2003. Dreading facing up to the problem of greenhouse gases from electricity generation, the Bush White House suggested that decisions should wait while FutureGen developed a coal-fired power with no emissions. FutureGen’s administrators spent five years on studies, proposals and studies of studies, but never broke ground for a test installation.

Then, in a fit of integrity, the Department of Energy decided the project should be put in Illinois, a
Democratic state — Midwestern coal is high in carbon, making this a logical choice — rather than in Republican Texas, which the White House preferred. The administration promptly canceled financing for FutureGen. But this month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced he was reviving the project, hinting that the ultimate cost may run to billions of dollars.

FutureGen was better off canceled. Government is good at basic research, poor at commercial-scale applied energy technology. The Synthetic Fuels Corporation, a heavily subsidized attempt begun by the Carter administration to manufacture gasoline substitutes, flopped without ever producing a marketable gallon.

The Energy Department has also financed such overpriced, unrealistic projects as the MOD-5B, a wind turbine that weighed 470 tons and stood 20 stories tall: it looked like a gigantic propeller intended to push the earth to a new star system. It ended up being sold for scrap.

The Obama administration’s FutureGen plan calls for yet another year of study before any actual action; test runs may not begin for a decade. No wonder the project’s nickname is “NeverGen".

This is part of a Washington tradition — beginning pie-in-the-sky projects that create an excuse to avoid forms of conservation and greenhouse-gas reduction that are possible immediately. Companies including General Electric have already perfected technology to reduce emissions substantially, called “integrated gasification combined cycle” power. (Yes, it needs a better name.)

Current coal-fired power plants burn pulverized coal using a combustion process that hasn’t changed in a half a century. The new approach turns coal into a gas similar to natural gas, which runs through a device similar to a jet engine. Such plants can achieve near-zero emissions of toxic material and chemicals that form smog, and they require about a third less coal than regular coal-fired power plants to produce an equal amount of energy, which means about a third lower greenhouse gases.

Beyond that, the promising technology of “sequestering” carbon dioxide — pumping it back into the ground to keep it out of atmosphere — appears for technical reasons to be impractical for conventional pulverized-coal power plants. But gasification plants have technical characteristics that should make “sequestration” of carbon feasible. A gasification power plant with sequestration would have around two-thirds lower greenhouse gases than a conventional coal-fired generating station.

The first commercial gasification power plant, designed by General Electric for Duke Energy, is being built in Indiana. Yet, absurdly, most state public-utility commissions have denied requests to construct the seenvironmentally friendly systems. Last year, Virginia denied a major utility’s request to build a coal-fired power plant that would have sequestered nearly all its carbon output.

One reason Virginia gave for the denial was the higher up-front cost of a gasification plant. Yet, once greenhouse gases are regulated (and President Obama’s cap-and-trade plan would in effect tax carbon), the economics of gasification plants may become attractive, with low-emission plants costing less to run.

Another reason for the denials is that utility commissions are waiting for the outcome of the FutureGen experiment. This is a classic instance of the best being enemy of the good. Rather than starting to cut coal-caused carbon emissions right now, we are waiting to see if a hypothetical system could achieve perfection decades from now. Meanwhile, emissions continue willy-nilly.

FutureGen is politically appealing: contractors get subsidies, politicians get to hand out money in their districts and astonishing breakthroughs are promised at unspecified future dates. Why aren’t progressives fighting for an immediate embrace of gasification power?

Much of the environmental movement clings to a fairyland notion that coal combustion can soon be eliminated, and therefore no coal-fired power plant of any kind, even an advanced plant, should be built.

Reflecting this mindset, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he opposes integrated gasification plants — only new solar, wind and geothermal facilities should be allowed. Environmentalists who correctly point out there can never be absolutely “clean coal” thus end up in the position of opposing coal that’s far cleaner than what we are using.

Yet coal use is a future certainty. Half of our power comes from coal, versus about 2 percent from solar and wind: in the next few decades, green power simply cannot grow quickly enough to eliminate the need for coal.

We have two choices: do nothing and wait for FutureGen while coal-caused carbon emissions continue unabated; or start building improved coal-fired plants that reduce the problem. Which seems moreforward-thinking?

Gregg Easterbrook is the author of “The Progress Paradox” and the forthcoming “Sonic Boom.” Y


Anonymous said...

You might want to take a look at -- hybrid-nuclear coal gasification plant. The technology would completely upend the folks at the NY Times.

Might be of interest to Gas Turbine World as well.

Mike Keller
Hybrid Power Technologies

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an informative response, Harry. It's amazing the technical rubbish that goes out to the general public.