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