FutureGen proposes to reduce costs further by better integrating carbon capture. Most IGCC plants proposed by utilities to date would gasify coal to generate hydrogen and carbon monoxide and then burn the mixed gases. For example, Duke Energy’s $2.3 billion project in Edwardsport, IN, which is the only IGCC plant currently under construction in the U.S. Carbon-capture equipment pulls CO2 out of flue gases using compounds that absorb CO2.. This is an easier job with IGCC plants, which have CO2-rich exhaust fumes, than with conventional power plants.
FutureGen aims to push IGCC’s potential CCS advantage further by removing carbon from an even more concentrated mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and then burning the pure hydrogen left over in more efficient (but as yet unproven) ultrahigh-temperature turbines. “It not only involves the carbon storage piece but also the advancement of hydrogen technologies associated with turbine performance,” says Akins. Munich-based Siemens AG, which sells IGCC technology, estimates that such integration could improve efficiency by about one-sixth–a huge boost for a sector that normally celebrates single-digit increases in efficiency.
The financial crisis threatens to leave this advantage on the shelf, however, since power companies currently favor CCS projects that simply bolt CCS onto existing coal plants. This includes Akins’ own company, as well as seven of the companies involved in the EU’s proposed CCS demonstrations. As the European Commission data suggest, plants with bolt-on CCS will cost more to run than an IGCC plant, but they require less capital up-front. “Major corporations like ours are experiencing the same type of economic upheaval the rest of the country is facing. Access to capital has become constrained,” says Akins.
On the other hand, international politics may favor the rebirth of FutureGen. In particular, getting developing countries such as China and India to commit to carbon caps is a major goal for the U.S. in the global negotiations governments hope to conclude in Copenhagen this December to define a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions. The Bush administration’s abrupt cancellation of FutureGen without notifying China, India, South Korea, and Australia–partners on the project–damaged relations with these countries, according to a report on FutureGen issued last month by Democrats serving on the House Science and Technology Committee. Worse still, the report cites a 2007 memo by Department of Energy staff arguing that cancelling FutureGen would disproportionately affect developing countries: “Without FutureGen, the availability of affordable coal-fueled CCS plants would be delayed at least 10 years.”
Tony Lodge, an energy analyst and fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, calls the cancellation of FutureGen short-sighted. He is equally critical of a decision by the U.K. government to restrict the use of its own CCS demonstration to coal-station retrofits. “If leading coal-burning economies like the U.S. and the U.K. are to influence coal-hungry countries such as India and China, then they must match their words with action,” says Lodge. “Support and development of FutureGen would be a significant start.”