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Wednesday, April 1, 2009 10:03 pm

The questionable future of FutureGen

Political clout may not be enough to make this project work

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The Wabash River IGCC project in West Terre Haute, Ind., is one of only two plants in the country using the technology that would be employed in FutureGen.

When U. S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu met with the FutureGen Alliance on Monday to discuss whether to proceed with a large-scale coal gasification demonstration plant near Mattoon, he faced enormous questions. Can the companies involved take two relatively untested technologies and combine them in a way that will produce “clean” energy from coal? If so, how much will it cost? It is no surprise that he came away from the meeting sounding less than enthused. The plan “has real merit,” he said in a statement.

There are plenty of skeptics who say there is really no such thing as clean coal. Two to three pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) — plus other pollutants — are created for every pound of coal burned, and something has to be done with the waste. Several times in the nation’s history an effort has been made to deal with coal’s problems by changing it into a liquid or gas. In 1944 the New York Times reported that, “The next 10 years will see the rise of a massive new industry which will free us from dependence on foreign sources of oil. Gasoline will be produced from coal, air and water.” The expensive technology was abandoned in the 1950s, but revived after the 1973 oil embargo. Several big coal-gas projects were announced for Illinois, but all fizzled due to cost overruns and technical problems. When Ronald Reagan brought fiscal conservatism to the White House in 1981, he killed the last of the projects.

Now the projects are back with a vengeance. At least four — in addition to FutureGen — have been announced for Illinois alone, including the Taylorville Energy Center, the Power Holdings project near Rend Lake, the Secure Energy project in Decatur, and the Southern Illinois Clean Energy Center in Williamson County. So far it is unclear whether federal energy policy will move all the projects forward or whether, like the last time, none of them will get off the drawing board. It would seem logical to build one major federal coal-gas demonstration plant like FutureGen, then let the others follow in a decade or so with the benefit of the experience at Mattoon. But federal energy policy has never been that cleancut.

The first unproven technology FutureGen depends on is IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle), which gasifies coal into synthetic gas to power a gas turbine. The heat from the gas turbine exhaust then generates steam to run a steam turbine. While none of the basic technologies — coal gasification, gas turbines and steam turbines — are new, it is the integration of the technologies into electric power plants that is new and presents engineering challenges. There are only two IGCC plants in the United States (one is in Terre Haute, Ind.) and only four in the world. Capital costs for IGCC plants are 20 percent to 47 percent higher than the cost of traditional coal plants.

Which leads to the second unproved technology: carbon capture and storage. The reason for using IGCC plants instead of traditional coal plants for “clean coal” projects is that IGCC offers a better chance to “capture” the CO2 from the coal, even though no existing IGCC plant currently captures CO2. The problem is that the energy required to capture and store (“sequester”) CO2 may take about 20 percent of the output of the power plant, according to a 2007 report by Emerging Energy Research. The world’s largest CO2 sequestration project is in Norway, where one million tons of CO2 per year are being pumped beneath the North Sea. It would take three of these projects to store the emissions from a single coal plant. The CO2 would have to be stored without leaking for thousands of years. If CO2 leaks out it can cause humans to suffocate because it is heavier than air. There is a danger that injecting large amounts of pressurized CO2 underground could cause seismic activity that could lead to leakage. These factors contribute to a July 2006 EPA report’s conclusion that “widespread introduction” of carbon capture and sequestration technology into the commercial market is “highly uncertain.”

A key factor is the political muscle behind FutureGen, with U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin leading the charge for federal funding, and likely support from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former member of the Illinois congressional delegation, and President Barack Obama himself. Though politics can’t solve the technological problems, clout may sink billions of dollars into these risky technologies before anyone has enough sense to stop. Alternatively, Secretary Chu could simply study the failed history of synthetic fuels projects and decide not to go down that road again.

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