Fifteen months after the FutureGen Alliance’s ambitious project to build America’s first commercial-scale clean-coal plant was shelved by the Bush administration, the plan has been given new life thanks to a $1.073 billion conditional commitment from the Department of Energy, which will be dipping into stimulus money allocated for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research.
Supporters of the project welcomed the news this month as a chance for the United States, which currently gets half of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, to reassert itself as a global leader in clean-coal technology. The reborn FutureGen will look much like the original concept when it was first announced in 2003. It will be a 275-megawatt Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plant designed to gasify coal, creating synthesis gas composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The syngas will be reacted with steam in a process that converts the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and produces more hydrogen. The carbon dioxide will be captured and pumped into a saline aquifer thousands of meters underground. The hydrogen will be combusted to generate electricity.
The original FutureGen was promoted as a way to demonstrate “advanced coal-based technologies” and “produce hydrogen to power fuel cells for transportation and other energy needs,” according to a 2005 press release announcing the creation of the alliance. But in a recent energy-department press release announcing the government’s renewed support for FutureGen, the words “coal” and “hydrogen” are never used, and instead, the emphasis is on demonstrating “carbon capture and storage at commercial scale.”
Use of the term “clean coal” has drawn too much attention to the source of the power, rather than to the outcome after power generation, some industry observers say. Meanwhile, U.S. secretary of energy Steven Chu announced in May that he was slashing the agency’s hydrogen-research budget and steering development away from transportation.
“If you go back to those earlier years, you’ll see so much in the way of hydrogen this, hydrogen that. But when was the last time people talked about hydrogen?” asks John Mead, director of Southern Illinois University’s Coal Research Center. Mead believes that the fading interest in the so-called hydrogen economy is part of the reason that the Bush administration backed away from the original FutureGen. “The project was propelled by that earlier interest in hydrogen, which was not directly related to the primary and best use of FutureGen,” Mead says.
The new plant will be based in Mattoon, IL, which in December 2007 won a competition to host the facility. That was just a month before the Bush administration pulled out of the project, citing rising costs and a preference–never acted on–to spread the wealth among several CCS-based coal projects. At the time, critics of the government’s about-face warned that a less centralized funding strategy would dilute efforts at creating a commercial-scale demonstration of advanced technologies.