Clean Coal Mirage?

Another setback for FutureGen, the Energy Department's major demonstration project

2 min read
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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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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