The Kemper power plant, the Obama administration’s flagship project for cutting carbon emissions through “clean coal” technology, is in big trouble. The project was initially slated to cost $2.4 billion, but the price tag is headed toward $7 billion. And there’s little sign that the knotty problem of how to capture and store carbon dioxide while still turning a profit has been solved.
A detailed investigation by the New York Times published Monday reveals plenty of signs, however, of wasteful spending, cover-ups, and obfuscation on the Kemper project. Unless the situation on the ground changes drastically and in short order, Kemper is threatening a fundamental assumption made by the federal government: that clean coal can be cost-effective.
Unfortunately, Kemper is just the latest sign that clean coal, after decades of research and billions of dollars of development, is an oxymoron—at least in any economically realistic sense. From the ill-fated FurtureGen plant, which foundered before being shuttered under President George W. Bush’s administration, to Canada’s Boundary Dam project to the bankruptcy of the coal giant Peabody Energy, which bet heavily on the idea of carbon-free coal power, success stories have been few and far between.
Instead there seems to be a growing pile of evidence that no matter how much money one throws at this problem, burning coal and removing the carbon dioxide remains far too expensive for utilities to consider implementing at scale. Unless those utilities are, as in the New York Times article, backed by powerful state politicians, and quite happy to jack up local electricity prices to pay for a technology that is nowhere near ready to lead us to a carbon-free future—and may never be.
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