Monday, August 09, 2010



DOE shifts FutureGen technology to oxy-combustion

boiler retrofit and moves plant site to Meridosa IL

On August 5, the news was finally out in the open: the US DOE and the FutureGen Alliance had quietly struck a new deal that totally changes the face of the FutureGen project.

They are calling it "FutureGen2".

Enter oxy-combustion retrofit

Instead of continuing along the rocky path that effectively duplicates Summit Energy's Texas Clean Energy (IGCC) Project - already receiving some $350 million in DOE funding -and other IGCC+CCS projects, FutureGen2 will take the form of an oxy-combustion boiler retrofit of an existing 200 MWe pulverized coal-steam plant in Meridosa, IL – some 150 miles west of Mattoon.

So, what is left for little old Mattoon - the official winner of the original competition for the FutureGen IGCC project?

Well it could be worse. With FutureGen2 they get more than they would have gotten the first time the project was killed back in December, 2007.

But now, rather than providing a site for a new $2 billion state-of-the-art power plant, they get to host the end of a pipeline carrying the CO2 collected at the Meridosa plant, and to supply a place for the long-term storage deep under 400 acres of rural farmland.

The good news

Perhaps Mattoon feels otherwise, but the good news is that the announcement of FutureGen2 is a big step forward.

The announcement actually included the naming of a bona-fide host utility (Ameren Energy), and the major contractors - B&W and Air Liquide - to supply the new oxy-combustion boiler system that will produce steam to power one of the now-idle 200 MWe steam turbine generators at the Meridosa site.

The other good news - to this observer - is that the US DOE - in spite of the expected political fireworks - has shown signs of some real strategic thinking going on behind the scenes.

And for Mattoon, the region will be at the hub of a regional CO2 transportation infrastructure now being given a jump start by the project.

Change was coming

The fact that the Texas Clean Energy (IGCC) Project had received a $350 million award under Round 3 of DOE's Clean Coal Initiative, and is moving ahead nicely with a front-end engineering design (FEED) study being carried out by Siemens and Fluor - made it virtually impossible for the DOE to continue support of FutureGen as a parallel "state-of-the-art" IGCC project.

Other IGCC+CCS projects in Mississippi and California also appear to be moving ahead with DOE funding and/or other forms of government financial support.

Clearly, FutureGen missed it's window of opportunity and the choice was clear - kill it again or have it emerge in a different form.
Opting for change has again saved the project.

Oxy-combustion retrofit of existing coal-steam plants is recognized globally as an important option for the future of coal-based power generation in a carbon-restrained world.

In that light, the announcement of FutureGen2, although coming as a surprise, immediately made a lot of sense to anyone keeping an eye on the situation.

US needs oxy-combustion demo
Supporters of IGCC technology (as well as those in and around Mattoon) might bemoan the loss of what might have been substantial government support of another new IGCC+CCS plant.

But, in my opinion, the change in FutureGen's direction is the right way to go.

DOE's own studies have shown the economic benefits of oxy-fuel combustion technology as a means for retrofitting existing coal plants to achieve real reductions in CO2 emissions.

Moreover, there are already a number of significant oxy-combustion demonstration projects underway in Europe, where it is widely accepted that retrofit for CO2 capture is an imperative.

Yes, Mattoon, it may be difficult to swallow yet another disappointment, but the US needs to support the development of its own oxy-combustion technology, and to support a commercial-scale demonstration of the technology.

With so many old coal-steam plants scheduled to be shut down due to their high emissions and huge carbon footprint, it could be that retrofit with new oxy-combustion boilers will prove to be the most cost effective way to keep these old plants online.

Is oxy-combustion ready?
At the very least, the parallel development of the Texas Clean Energy Project and FutureGen2 will provide an excellent way to obtain actual field data from the two main competing clean-coal technologies, operating at commercial scale, thus helping the US map out the future of coal-based power generation.

Is oxy-combustion technology ready for the scale-up to 200 MWe? Some think not - and say that FutureGen2 may be doomed to failure without more R&D. But B&W has already operated a pilot test unit, and the scale-up risk is considered to be manageable.

It looks like we'll all find out before too long - as long as FutureGen2 can get on track and avoid missing this new window of opportunity.