Gregg Easterbrook is a well-regarded environmental writer and a long-term contributor to the ultra-prestigious Atlantic Monthly. But I hope he never is the one to decide whether I get my next job or publication, because I'm about to correct two mistakes he makes in today’s New York Times. In “The Dirty War Against Clean Coal,” Easterbrook takes the Energy Department to task for resuscitating FutureGen, its futuristic clean-coal project. “This is part of a Washington tradition,” says Easterbrook, ”beginning pie-in-the-sky projects that create an excuse to avoid forms of conservation and greenhouse-gas reduction that are possible immediately. Companies including General Electric have alrady perfected technology to reduce emissions substantially, called 'integrated gasification combined cycle' [IGCC] power."
In other words, instead of going for an unproved new technology, the Department of Energy should stick with IGCC. But there's a problem here. FutureGen IS an IGCC plant and always has been so visualized. (In addition to gasifying coal, it would separate and capture all carbon and permanently store it away.)
There’s another problem. “The first commercial gasification power plant, designed by General Electric for Duke Energy, is being build in Indiana,” Easterbrook continues. Actually, two IGCC plants have been operating for many years: Tampa Electric’s Polk plant near Tampa, and Duke Energy’s Wabash River plant near Terre Haute, Indiana. (We're not bragging, because it's not exactly breaking news, but both ieee tv and IEEE Spectrum visited the Polk plant two summers ago, and descriptions can be found both at IEEE TV and in Spectrum magazine.) Per watthour of electricity produced, the Polk plant's is easily the most expensive in the whole country.
As long as the record is being set straight, Easterbrook’s straw-man conclusion also is very misleading. Green power, that is to say wind and solar, “simply cannot grow fast enough to eliminate the need for coal,” he says. But nobody is talking about eliminating our need for coal. What we can do is sharply reduce our reliance on coal, and to accomplish that, we can turn not only to wind but also to nuclear and gas-generated electricity. Per watt, nuclear eliminates for all practical purposes 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; natural gas cuts them about 50 perent.