Clean Coal Mirage?

Turn on your television in the United States and tune to just about any newscast, and you are almost sure to encounter an industry-sponsored ad touting the benefits of "clean coal." And yet the reality of clean coal continues to recede. The latest reverse was the decision last month by an Illinois utility, Ameren, to pull out of the major U.S. demonstration project, dubbed FutureGen 2.0. The retreat by Ameren, which was to host the project at an oid oil-fired plant, leaves us awaiting word from partners Babcock & Wilcox and Air Liquide as to whether they will proceed with the project, with DOE.

The U.S. government has had an ambivalent on-again, off-again relationship with the project from its inception. First suggested by a White House energy advisory panel in the Clinton years, FutureGen got going during George W. Bush's  administration, only to be cancelled before Bush left office; Obama's DOE resuscitated the project, reconceptualizing it as a test of oxyfuel rather than IGCC technology. (Readers wanting the whole checkered history can easily find it by searching on FutureGen in Spectrum's website.) Oxyfuel involves removing nitrogen from air and burning fossil fuel in an atmosphere of almost pure oxygen, which facilitates separation and capture of carbon dioxide.

Another cloud hanging over FutureGen is the scarcity of detailed reporting from the one major oxyfuel test project to have been performed to date, at Vattenfall's Schwarze Pumpe plant in eastern Germany. Vattenfall's reticence suggests either that the plant has not been a resounding success, or that European utilities have generally lost confidence in the clean coal vision. Another major demonstration project, slated for Scottish Power's Longannet coal station, also is teetering.

European promoters of carbon capture and storage have been finding it much harder than expected to win public acceptance of actual storage plans. A positive development, on the other hand, has been the start of carbon dioxide injection into a sandstone formation near Decatur, Ill. If in the end FutureGen ever goes forward, could this be where its capture carbon ends up?

 

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