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FutureGen Rises from the Dead

The DOE’s backing revives a pioneering clean-coal project.

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.

Future vision: A rendering of the proposed FutureGen clean-coal plant that is planned for Mattoon, IL. The commercial-scale plant will demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration as a way to control carbon dioxide emissions.

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.

Howard Herzog, a research engineer at MIT’s energy and environment lab, cautions that the return of FutureGen isn’t without its challenges. “The key barrier for moving ahead is money,” he says. “The amount currently committed by government and consortium members is not adequate to fund the original version.”

Despite the energy department’s renewed commitment, the FutureGen Alliance still needs to come up with $700 million to $900 million to go ahead with what’s now estimated as a $2.4 billion project, up from the original $1.5 billion price tag.

The alliance has until January to come up with a more detailed cost estimate and present a full funding plan to the energy department, which must still give its final approval in order for the project to go ahead. “Everything will be reviewed,” says Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for the alliance, which is mostly made up of large electric utilities and coal companies. “Many different options will be considered to reduce cost and technical risk. Once the DOE and alliance make a decision to move full-speed ahead, we will be able to break ground and begin procurement in 2010, with operations beginning in 2014.”

Another difference between the original and revived FutureGen is the carbon-capture goal. The early plans called for a 90 percent CO2 capture rate–a target that won over the support of environmental groups that reluctantly accepted clean coal’s role in curbing global greenhouse-gas emissions. The new plan is less ambitious to start, calling for a 60 percent target. But Pacheco says that the higher target is still in play: “The plant will be built to reach, eventually, a 90 percent capture rate.”

Mead says that what’s important is that the plant be built and demonstrated, allowing utilities to discover many of the unknowns surrounding the technology and share in the FutureGen Alliance’s experiences. “It may not have breakthrough or revolutionary features in every step of the process, but together, it’s going to be a demonstration of the best we can do today,” he says.

The technology in FutureGen, however, is targeted at new power plants and does little to address the more than 600 existing coal plants scattered across the United States. A report released last week from MIT urged the U.S. government to bolster research in post-combustion approaches to reducing CO2 emissions from coal plants.

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