Will Coal Finally Get the Chance to Clean up its Act?

Will Coal Finally Get the Chance to Clean up its Act?

Clean technologists are applauding Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu's recent announcement to restart the FutureGen project, which would be the first commercially-scaled coal-fired power plant in the world to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground.
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"This important step forward for FutureGen reflects this Administration’s commitment to rapidly developing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology as part of a comprehensive plan to create jobs, develop clean energy and reduce climate change pollution.” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a prepared statement. 

"The FutureGen project holds great promise as a flagship facility to demonstrate carbon capture and storage at commercial scale.  Developing this technology is critically important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and around the world.”

Indeed, Secretary Chu made a point during his confirmation hearings to make cleaning up coal a priority: "Two-thirds of the known coal reserves in the world lie in only four countries: the United States, first and foremost, followed by India, China and Russia. India and China, Russia and the United States, I believe, will not turn their back on coal, so it is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible.

"And so for that reason, I think again, my optimism as a scientist, we will develop those technologies to capture a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that is emitted from coal plants and safely sequester them."

According to FutureGen Alliance, the construction of the plant represents "the culmination of over 30 years of collaborative research, development, and demonstration between the U.S. Department of Energy and industry." The FutureGen Alliance, a public-private partnership, began conceptual design during the Bush Administration in 2005, but the project was shelved due to what was believed to have been unexpectedly high costs, amid rising oil prices.

As ClimateBiz.com reported earlier this year, research from Nature showed that CCS may be less costly than previously anticipated. In addition a report by the Government Accountability Office (PDF) criticized the Bush Administration's DOE assements and questioned the methodology. And while the project still must be reconfigured from its original plans before it is implemented, some of the anticipated costs have changed.

For example, the cost and availability of drilling rigs are more affordable now, as the price of oil is around $70 per barrel, compared to around $90 per barrel in January of 2008, when the Bush Administration withdrew its support.

And many experts say that providing stimulus funds for the project is an important component of breaking ground for the FutureGen plant. Like any other technology, such as wind or solar power, government support is necessary to ensure CCS can be proved and replicated around the world, said Lawrence Pacheco, spokesperson for The FutureGen Alliance. As part of the cooperative effort, the Department of Energy will share 74 percent of the costs of the demonstration project, he said in a telephone interview.

While it is costly now -- an estimated $1.073 billion from the DOE and up to $600 million from alliance partners -- proponents say that FutureGen is the first step in proving a technology that will capture global demand for reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. Initial plans for the FutureGen plant were to store 1 million metric tons of CO2 per year, or 90 percent of what the plant would produce. This figure may change after plans are reconfigured, Pacheco said.

Sarah Forbes, senior associate of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute (WRI) said that CCS technology must be used in order to meet the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent, citing a recent report by the International Energy Agency.

"We have to balance what we know and what we don’t know to build technology to scale," she said in a telephone interivew from the American Public Power Assotiation Conference in Salt Lake City.

We do know how to remove CO2 from coal before it is burned, and we do know how to reinject liquefied CO2 into geological formations, as is often done in the petroleum industry to boost production from dwindling oil and natural gas fields. What we don't know -- and what is at the crux of the climate change issue -- is whether this liquefied CO2 can be stored thousands of feet underground in porous sandstone, sandwiched between layers of impermeable rock and stay there indefinitely. This chart from WRI, shows how this process works:Courtesy World Resources Institute

Pacheco insists that the FutureGen Alliance has developed technology that will monitor whether the CO2 remains in the storage sites. And based on the large amount of CO2 to be stored annually, Forbes said underground geological formations are more cost-effective than above-ground storage tanks. In addition, Forbes notes that CCS technology will not work in every location -- each site must have the right geology to properly secure the CO2.

Robert Van Voorhees, an environmental lawyer at Bryan Cave agrees with these assesments. "FutureGen is meant to be an experimental demonstration of a commercial development and provide a lot of answers," he said in a telephone interview. Van Voorhees should know -- he represented Texas in the site selection process for FutureGen; the Lone Star State had two of the four finalist locations before the Matoon, Ill., site was chosen.

"There should be flexibility (in expectations) and it will advance knowledge of commercial-level operations (for CCS technology)," adding that the real breakthroughs will be seen in the capture side.

Although the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity did not immediately return calls for comment on job creation, Pacheco estimates that 5,000 jobs could be created across the nation through 2011. Both Pacheco and Forbes said that the people of Illinois embrace the project and are excited for the opportunity to have a world-class visitors' center for the demonstration project, in addition to the potential for employment.

But not everyone sees this project through such rosy lenses. GreenBiz.com contributor Marc Gunther quipped earlier this year, “An environmentalist pal of mine likes to refer to FutureGen as NeverGen.”

It might be "NextYearGen," instead of NeverGen, due to the commitment of the Obama Administration, the shovel-readiness of the project and the $1 billion available in stimulus funds. And in order to ensure that electricity is affordable, it is vital to be able to utilize such an abundant, seemingly cheap resource and reduce its CO2 emissions.

But unfortunately, CCS technology cannot retrofit the hundreds of coal-burning power plants across the nation, which supply half of the electricity produced in this country. That is to say, in order burn "clean coal" we will need hundreds of new plants fitted with CCS technology. And then what? Will we simply shut down the hundreds of "dirty coal" plants that can't capture CO2? Or will the Waxman-Markey bill set a price for carbon emissions that is higher than the cost of dirty coal operations?

Experts who say that FutureGen is necessary to develop technolgoy for the future are correct; with the growing energy demand from China and India, removing CO2 from coal emissions is the crucial to limiting the effects of climate change.

Forbes notes the importance of FutureGen as part of a global solution: "If we don’t have a solution for coal in China, we don’t have solution for climate change."

Image Courtesy of: FutureGen Alliance