Monday, September 01, 2014




From an article appearing in the Seattle Times

It has been more than ten years since President George W. Bush unveiled plans for the world’s first zero-emissions coal plant.

The “FutureGen” plant was supposed to serve as a showcase of America’s ability to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.  The project would be “one of the boldest steps our nation takes toward a pollution-free future...... and will help turn coal from an environmentally challenging energy resource into an environmentally benign one, ” according to Spencer Abraham, Bush’s Secretary of Energy.

More than a decade later, there has yet to be a groundbreaking for “FutureGen 2.0”, as the project is currently known, after it was resurrected, restructured and redesigned by the Obama administration in 2009.

Originally based on building a new advanced IGCC plant using pre-combustion carbon capture, today’s plan calls for overhauling a 1940s vintage power station in Illinois to oxy-combustion so that its carbon emissions can be captured, compressed and stored some 4,300 feet underground.

But the effort continues to be plagued by political infighting, design changes and escalating costs that helped trigger a legal battle with the state’s largest utility, and threaten the project for a second time.

Tortured birthing process 
FutureGen’s tortured birthing process reflects broader problems in the global effort to develop “clean coal” plants and carbon-capture technology — considered to be key steps in the battle to slow climate change.

Even the US Energy Department now has doubts about whether FutureGen will succeed, considering the project as a “high-risk” in its ability to meet a September 2015 deadline for spending $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars awarded in the early days of the first Obama term in the White House.

Although the International Energy Agency has declared carbon capture to be a key part of the struggle to head off impacts of climate change, so far no country has succeed, either with regulations, or with financial incentives, to spur commercial implementation of the costly and still evolving technology.

Moreover, the debate over the carbon-capture strategy itself still clouds issue.  Many renewable-energy advocates don’t see carbon capture as a viable strategy to fight climate change. They are convinced solar, wind, hydroelectric, and perhaps nuclear power, can be the mainstay of 21st century global energy.

Supporters of carbon capture say that the world will be slow to shift from the use of fossil fuels. And they forecast that carbon capture — even with costs of upwards of 70 percent higher than traditional coal plants — will, in the long run, be a cheaper option than paying the costs associated with extremes of climate changes.

“This is the only game in town,” said Edward Rubin, a lead author of a carbon-capture report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Prototype Plant 
But utilities and regulators balk at carbon-capture costs. Many proposed projects have been canceled. And concerns have been heightened by a carbon-capture plant now under construction in Mississippi (Kemper County IGCC Project) that is running $3 billion over budget.

FutureGen 2.0, is now estimated to cost some $1.65 billion for the conversion of the 168MW Meredosia plant.  It is designed to be the first commercial scale demonstration of a technology, known as oxy-combustion, that can capture and store more than 90 percent plant’s carbon emissions.

About 40 percent of the cost is to be privately financed, with the rest of the money coming from the federal grant.

“FutureGen is a prototype plant," said Ken Humphreys, chief executive officer of FutureGen.  "It’s not surprising that its cost of electricity is higher."

Although the coal companies that control FutureGen funding say carbon-capture technology holds promise for the future, they appear skeptical that it can be put into place anytime soon.

Along with coal-burning utilities they are fighting the proposed EPA rule that would require partial carbon capture (to natural gas equivalence) in any new coal plant, as well as another proposed rule that calls for emission reductions in states with existing fossil fuel plants.

The technology “is simply not commercially available,” declared Peabody Energy, a key member of the FutureGen Alliance, in a statement released last September.

An idea whose time had come – and passed? 
At the turn of the new century, clean coal looked like an idea whose time had come.

In 2000 Republican candidate Bush declared that he would require power plants to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and place an overall cap on U.S. carbon emissions

Three years later, the Bush administration launched FutureGen as a 10-year effort to build a carbon-capture plant.   "A zero-emissions coal-burning power plant."

But Bush and his administration soon cooled on the idea tackling global warming and abandoned the call for capping emissions.  Government reports downplayed concerns about climate change.

Sam Bodman, Abraham’s successor at DOE, scrapped the idea of building the FutureGen plant in favor of a series of smaller projects.  

Then, in December 2007, in a total PR debacle, the FutureGen Alliance announced its "final" selection of Mattoon, IL as the site of the new carbon-capture coal plant.  But hours later, in a surprise move, the DOE pulled the rug from under the Alliance's feet, and disclosed that the project would be restructured “due to escalating costs.” 

Mattoon would not get its plant, and FutureGen was effectively dead - at least as far as the Bush administration was concerned.

From Mattoon to Meredosia 
But in January 2009,  a junior senator from Illinois, who had been a loyal backer of a FutureGen project in his home state, took up residence in the White House. 

In fact, President Obama's campaign platform had actually called for federal assistance to build four commercial-scale carbon-capture plants, and FutureGen was no doubt among the ones he was planning on.

During his first few months in office, President Obama worked with the Illinois congressional delegation to get FutureGen back on track with a $1 billion “stimulus package” earmark from Congress.

With new money came new design ideas.

Instead of a new IGCC + CC plant in Mattoon, the plan called for retrofitting the old Meredosia plant, owned by Ameren Energy Resources, with a new oxygen-rich boiler. This oxy-combustion process concentrates carbon emissions so they can be readily captured from the plant exhaust and prepared for long-term storage.

 The Energy Department was again extremely bullish when it announced FutureGen 2.0. in 2010.
The investment will “... position the country as a leader in an important part of the global clean energy economy,” said Steven Chu, the new-Energy Secretary, as he announced the siting.

Beacon of hope – still glimmers, barely 
The Meredosia plant first began producing power back in 1948, but the plant has operated only sporadically since the late 1990s, reflecting the condition of the region.

The FutureGen project was seen by many in the mostly rundown little town as a “beacon of hope” that could revive the community.

But the revamped project soon suffered a major defections and setbacks. 

In summer 2011, Ameren, owner of the plant site, decided to withdraw its participation when it concluded that the conversion to carbon capture would cost nearly $400 million more than initially forecast.

The dwindling FutureGen Alliance, then down to five members has been scrambling to come up with the $650 million of private money to finance the project

Most of that money will be borrowed, with the debt paid off through a 20-year power sale approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission that was more than five times the price of the state’s current (2013) spot market prices.

In 2013, Exelon, the parent of Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest utility, declaring that “customers should not be forced to pay enormous above-market charges for electricity,”  joined with state electricity suppliers to challenge the contract terms in a lawsuit.

Although the Illinois appellate court decided in favor of FutureGen last month, one of the plaintiffs plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

While the legal battle drags on, FutureGen could not close a deal for private financing. And without that private money in hand, DOE officials would not be able to release the federal grant funds required for construction.

The start-up date, once scheduled for June, got pushed back yet again to later this year. These delays make it ever more difficult to meet the September 2015 deadline for spending the $1 billion federal grant.

So this American vision of clean coal — as pursued by two presidents — remains elusive.

And FutureGen, for the moment at least, is more a lessons-learned cautionary footnote than a living inspiration for those considering converting a coal plant to carbon capture.