#1 cleantech news, reviews, & analysis site in the world. Subscribe today. The future is now.

Coal FutureGen clean coal

Published on February 6th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


No Future For Clean Coal: $1 Billion Plug Pulled On FutureGen

February 6th, 2015 by  

FutureGen was supposed to be a national showcase for “clean coal” technology, but now it’s destined to be a footnote. Earlier this week, the Energy Department withdrew $1 billion in Recovery Act funds that it had pledged to the massive project, effectively killing it — at least for now.

US coal is already facing stiff competition from the domestic natural gas glut, and the emergence of cost-competitive solar and wind power isn’t helping things along. This latest stumble is yet another indication that the US energy landscape of the future will not depend on coal, “clean” or otherwise.

Also, where did that $1 billion go?

FutureGen clean coal

What Is Clean Coal?

First, let’s clarify something about “clean coal.”

Clean coal refers to reducing or neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions at the burn point. It doesn’t address any of the other issues posed by coal, including highly destructive extraction, toxic processing chemicals, transportation impacts, ash disposal impacts, and other “externalities.”

FutureGen & Clean Coal

That brings us to FutureGen, or to be precise, FutureGen 2.0. The project had its roots in the Clinton Administration and got a reboot early in the Bush Administration under the name FutureGen. It would have been the first — and to date the only — fully integrated coal power plant and carbon capture project in the world.

The burning would take place at the Meredosia Energy Center located near Meredosia, Illinois, and the carbon dioxide would be transported to a permanent underground storage site near Ashland.

As for clean, the idea was to use oxy-combustion, a proven technology, in combination with carbon storage to capture at least 90% of carbon emissions. Oxy-combustion refers to burning coal with a mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide, instead of ambient air. The result is a concentrated stream of carbon dioxide, which is a good form for permanent storage.

For an extra bonus, the system would have practically eliminated other emissions, too.

Here’s a rundown from the Energy Department:

…In addition, oxy-combustion technology creates a near-zero emissions plant by eliminating almost all of the mercury, SOx, NOx, and particulate pollutants from plant emissions. The Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory studies have identified oxy-combustion as potentially the least cost approach to clean-up existing coal-fired facilities and capture CO2 for geologic storage.

It sounds simple enough, but when you tote up all the costs of running that system, you get much closer to the truth: coal cannot compete with cleaner fuels.

That became apparent toward the end of the Bush Administration, and the project was shelved. President Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy revived it as FutureGen 2.0, but the aforementioned price pressure from both fossil fuels and renewables caught up with it again.

Rug Pulled Out From FutureGen

As far as we can tell, the Associated Press broke the story about FutureGen’s demise earlier this week.

One major stakeholder in FutureGen, the global coal company Peabody Energy, issued a statement about the matter yesterday, calling for a reversal of the decision.

Apparently still in a state of denial, Peabody’s Chairman and CEO had this to say:

It makes no sense to pull the plug on $1 billion committed to America’s signature near-zero emissions power project at such a critical time for these investments in technology. The Administration has pledged $1 billion for advanced coal projects in China, and I urge them to support investments in the United States….

Speaking of China, Peabody is deeply invested in China’s coal profile, so while the loss of a major US project must sting, the company can still take advantage of our taxpayer support for “advanced” coal projects in China.

As for clean coal, Peabody bills itself as “the world’s largest private-sector coal company and a global leader in sustainable mining, energy access and clean coal solutions,” but take a look back at the mess left behind in Appalachia, where Peabody had mountaintop removal mining operations until spinning off its West Virginia and Kentucky holdings as Patriot Coal in 2007.

Patriot went bankrupt in 2012, leaving hundreds of workers and retirees in the lurch. That brings us right back around to that $1 billion honeypot.

$1 Billion From “Clean Coal” To Green Jobs

Thanks to the intertubes and the Lexington Herald-Leader, we stumbled across an interesting coincidence. Do read the entire article, by Bill Estep, for a generous helping of detail, but the gist of it is that earlier this week — apparently on the same day that FutureGen was notified of its demise — the Obama Administration announced the new budget including a $1 billion employment package for coal-producing areas hit hard by job losses.

Details are still to be worked out, but part of the idea would be to recalibrate the federal abandoned mine land fund. Generally the fund is geared to reforestation and other soil-stability projects involving temporary employment. The new proposal would steer the fund toward a focus on sustained economic development projects, such as establishing orchards.

The proposal also includes a job training component, and this is just a wild guess but we’re thinking that a good chunk of that would be earmarked for wind and solar jobs, so stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Image Credit (screenshot, cropped): FutureGen 2.0 by US Department of Energy.

Tags: , , , ,

About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Philip W

    1 million trees per year seems a bit low to me to have a significant effect. Do you have a source where I can read up on this?

    • CR

      It’s way, way too little. Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use are on the order of ten gigatonnes per year. A single tree traps about a tonne of carbon. Thus a million trees a year is equivalent to around 0.01% the fossil fuel emissions. I.e. it would take a millennia to offset just one year of emissions.

      We’d need to plant more than a thousand times that much to make meaningful reductions in atmospheric CO2. We’d have to plant about one Connecticut-sized forest a year. Considering the growing global population, we don’t have the fertile land for that much new forest.

  • Epicurus

    How much electricity would $1 billion worth of solar panels produce?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Utility solar is probably about $1.75/watt in the US SW now. It was $1.81 about four months ago. $1 billion would buy about 570 million watts of installed panels.

      At 5.5 average solar hours per day that would be 3.1 billion watt hours average per day. 3.1 GWh.

      • Epicurus

        That’s the capacity of about 15 large coal plants, isn’t it?

        If so, spending the money on the solar panels sounds like a better deal.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Doing the comparison a different way, the non-subsidized price of utility solar (based on 2014 PPAs) is just a bit over 6 cents per kWh.

          New coal would be, best I can determine, over 15 cents per kWh. Add in coal’s external costs and the price goes over 20 cents per kWh. So somewhere between 2x and 3x the price of PV solar.

          Wind PPAs are running just under 4 cents per kWh, non-subsidized. That makes new coal about 4x to 5x more expensive than onshore wind.

          And with wind and solar that’s just during the 20 year payoff period. Both are going to give many more years of almost free electricity while coal would require a constant supply of fuel. And keep producing the external costs.

          • Epicurus

            Consequently, FutureGen was a much bigger boondoggle than Solyndra, but, unfortunately it won’t get reported that way in the MSM.

          • Epicurus

            Does that 15 cents per kWh for new coal include the carbon capture and storage technology?

          • Bob_Wallace

            15 cents includes carbon capture but not transportation and storage.

        • Ronald Brakels

          It is definitely a better deal to spend money on solar rather than new coal, even if the costs of externalities (global warming, health, Tony Abbott, etc.) are ignored. This is not just because the capital costs of solar have come down, but because its operating costs are so much lower. As close to zero as electricity generation gets.

          In Australia solar also costs about $1.75 US a watt before tax or subsidy. Except here that’s for rooftop solar and not utility scale solar where the panels are put in big solar farms. (Our utility scale solar is much more expensive, but I don’t want to go into that.) Our rooftop solar, and it is almost totally all rooftop solar, has the advantage of competing with the retail cost of electricity rather than the wholesale cost. As a result our solar would outcompete coal power even if the cost of generating electricity from coal was zero cents a kilowatt-hour.

          Now solar PV by itself won’t meet demand after the sun goes down. But this isn’t as big a problem as some people pretend it is. More solar power means more hydroelectric power can be saved for use in the evening and demand will shift to the daytime to take advantage of the lower electricity prices during daylight.

  • Bill Chaffee

    Clean coal peaked in 1914 didn’t it? Aside from graphite anthracite is the only form of coal that comes close to being clean. Co2 is a greenhouse gas but it is not a poison unless it is present in very high concentrations.

    • Ross

      CO2 is however a pollutant under the Clean Air Act as confirmed by the US Supreme Court.

  • spec9

    CCS is a boondoggle. They love to talk about it but they never actually want to build a CCS plant because they know it is ridiculously expensive such that it is uneconomical. You are better off closing coal plants and replacing them with a mix of solar PV, wind, nuclear, gas, geothermal, hydropower, etc.

    • Epicurus

      “CCS is a boondoggle”

      Just like corn ethanol which is nothing more than a welfare program for corn farmers.

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s the tell.

      If there was a good chance that CCS worked at an affordable price we would see the coal industry building plants.

      But they aren’t.

  • CR

    While I agree that clean coal is unsustainable and uneconomical, CCS is the only realistic looking tech to actually reduce CO2 levels. Not with coal+CCS, obviously, since that’s at best carbon neutral, but biomass+CCS.

    • CU

      You are not a physical chemist, right?

      • CR

        No, why?

      • Ross

        The carbon in biomass came from the atmosphere. The carbon in coal is already sequestered and is best left there.

        • CR

          Exactly. We should stop burning coal yesterday, but storing the carbon from burning biomass would be actually useful.

    • spec9

      There are other ways to reduce CO2 . . . like plant more trees. Biochar.

      • CR

        Planting more trees isn’t a feasible path, since they need to be in new places. Typical uses of wood release at least as much CO2 as the trees have removed from the atmosphere.

        Biochar is another option, but since it allows less use of the wood’s energy, I find it less likely to become an economical way to reduce CO2 levels. Would be happy to be wrong, though.

  • Ronald Brakels

    I’d probably need to get some sort of permit to do this, but right now in Australia with a few phone calls and some money I could sequester CO2 removed from the atmosphere agriculturally for perhaps $90 US a tonne. And I’m sure that if I approached it as a business and not just to make a point I could do it for significantly less than that. $90 a tonne is very roughly 9 cents per kilowatt-hour generated from coal or about half that for natural gas. Can new coal plants with carbon capture followed by sequestation realistically compete with this? No, they can’t. But don’t feel bad. On a per capita basis Australia has probably wasted far more money on this.

  • Coal plants work well when coal is burned to heat water and every product of combustion is exhausted to the air (CO2, SOx, NOx, fly ash) and settle and dumped on the ground (bottom ash). The more stuff put on the stack over the years has made it less feasible. This has been understood for 45 years – but ignored via subsidies and grants. Pollution control has optimized combustion (more BTUs per mass), but that’s nearing peak efficacy. That’s why gas is so sexy. After gas processing to remove liquids, sulfur, mercury, etc, the stuff is burned and exhausted, with no stack controls. Futuregen has been on the chopping block for about ever. It’s been kept going only due to Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri’s congress people and eventually Obama wanting it funded to keep downstate Illinois and coal country happy. Excelon, the big honking utility doesn’t care about the fate of sequestration. It’s mainly just mining via Peabody of the Show Me state. One of the key drivers of turtling Futuregen is opening shale oil and gas in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois for fracking. The New Albany shale is all set to go. This may be an oil rich area like North Dakota Bakken – so the climate change fighting argument may be silly. These guys use renewables as window dressing.

  • James Van Damme

    What is “sustainable mining”?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Moving sand from one hole to another and then back again….

      • Actually that’s about what we do. We mine sand and then fill the pits with trash (maybe) and then mine the landfill gas. Landfill mining for metals may be a thing in the future.

        Seriously, sand for fracking is being mined in Wisconsin and Illinois and sent all over the US to be injected into the ground. It ends there. Silica sand or “Ottawa sand” mining is becoming an environmental problem. Both from digging up excellent farmland and the dust generated. So Illinois land is getting railed and barged to Pennsylvania and the natural gas of Pennsylvania is getting compressed to LNG and shipped to Poland and Europe for burning low GHG emission electricity. Or as an alternative to Russian gas.

      • eveee

        Holy bat cave Robin, I think he just made a joke..

    • Martin

      Sustainable mining would be mining for materials for RE systems only.

  • Are we seeing the end of coal?

    • RobMF

      Yes. It’s the beginning of the end for coal. Oil and gas not far behind. Whole fossil fuel segment is malinvestment at this time.

      • Matthew Rose

        I hope this is true. I can not affirm this, as of yet.

    • JamesWimberley

      The light at the end of the coalmine tunnel is an oncoming train.

Back to Top ↑