U.S. Government Terminates Its Major Clean Coal Project

By far the most important project in the U.S. government's carbon sequestration program came to a screeching end on 31 January with the announcement by the U.S. Secretary of Energy that the department was pulling the plug on FutureGen. The basic idea of FutureGen, which goes back more than a decade, was to develop an integrated carbon-free coal gasification technology, where the gas would drive electric power turbines, separated hydrogen might power fuel cells, and the captured carbon dioxide would be permanently disposed of in geologic repositories. With the demise of FutureGen, whether it turns out to be somewhat exaggerated or not (as Mark Twain once said of his own alleged death), all the more significant is the clean coal plant being built in eastern Germany, with an alternative carbon-capture technology called oxyfuel.

That project will be the first larger-than-laboratory-scale electric power plant in which the carbon is captured for permanent disposal.

The East German plant, located in a town called Schwarze Pumpe, not far from the Czech and Polish borders, is a joint project of the Swedish national energy company Vattenfall and the French power engineering company Alstom. At that demonstration facility, which is to be completed this spring, nitrogen will be separated from air pre-combustion, so that post-combustion flue gases consist essentially of just water and carbon dioxide. The initial air separation process is costly in terms of both energy and money, but the dividend comes with the simplification of the CO2 removal process.

As for FutureGen, the concept for the plant was outlined in a 1997 report by the energy panel of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the last-such top-level look at long-term U.S. energy policy (if one excepts the controversial 2001 Cheney report, which was produced behind closed doors, without the same kind of open scientific review). The Bush administration adopted the project in 2003, defining it as a public-private partnership, in which a group of private energy companies would pay for the gasification and generation plant, while the government, would cover the carbon capture and disposal costs. In the meantime, however, the estimated cost of the project has soared from about $1 billion to $1.8 billion, the Energy Department says.

A site for FutureGen had been selected in Illinois, and so the department's decision to shelve the project drew howls of protest from several of the state's heavyweight political leaders, including presidential candidate Barack Obama and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic Party's most influential strategist. Like a Phoenix, the project may of course rise again--but by the time it does, Vattenfall's Schwarze Pumpe plant will be up and running, and follow-on commercial-scale oxyfuel projects will likely be well along.

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