June 14, 2009

Clean Coal Gets New Backing

The Department of Energy’s flagship “clean coal” power plant has a new lease on life, thanks to a billion dollars from last year’s stimulus package. The plan to build the plant, which will be the first large plant to capture and bury its carbon dioxide emissions in the ground, was scrapped by the Bush Administration in early 2008.

Rekindling the FutureGen project is a signal that the Obama Administration and Energy Secretary Steve Chu won’t just be supporting wind and solar power, but some new fossil fuel technologies, too.

“This important step forward for FutureGen reflects this Administration’s commitment to rapidly developing carbon capture and sequestration technology as part of a comprehensive plan to create jobs, develop clean energy and reduce climate change pollution,” said Steve Chu, Secretary of Energy, in a DOE statement. “The FutureGen project holds great promise as a flagship facility to demonstrate carbon capture and storage at commercial scale. Developing this technology is critically important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and around the world.”

Carbon capture and sequestration is a hotly debated technology among energy and climate experts. Some environmental groups argue that burying CO2 isn’t feasible in the near-term and merely acts as a rhetorical front for the fossil fuel industries. On the other hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.-backed body of climate researchers, see it as a major part of the long-term energy future. If it works and it’s cheap — two huge ifs — it would provide low-carbon power 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Department of Energy, under Chu, had already announced a separate chunk of $2.4 billion for carbon burial, bringing its total support for the tech to $3.4 billion. Politically, it’s a popular “green” technology in the coal states, particularly in the South, where renewable energy resources are more limited than in other areas of the country. And if it works really well, it’s possible that biomass could be burned, which would actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

The carbon burial process is geologically complex. You need just the right combination of layers of rock: one porous rock layer, such as sandstone, that can contain the CO2, and then a layer (or layers) of impermeable caprock, such as shale, on top of that to prevent the gas from escaping back to the surface. Just capturing the CO2 out of a mix of other molecules is difficult, too. It takes highly engineered materials that selectively capture CO2 and release it on command. The high-tech nature of both of components of a carbon capture and sequestration plant have soured some utility executives on the technology.

One major problem is that no one has actually tried to bury CO2 in huge quantities, or as industry folks would say, at scale. Without real-world testing, it’s hard to know whether it will be possible to scrub the CO2 from our coal plants at a reasonable cost.

The 275-megawatt FutureGen project has long been intended to be that real world laboratory. First announced by President Bush as a $1 billion project in 2003, it was supposed to prove that coal power plants could effectively capture and store their greenhouse gas emissions underground. The project advanced slowly, though, and its total cost is now estimated at $1.8 billion.

While Chu’s words were a strong indication that the project has his backing, the future of FutureGen is not entirely assured. The DOE and the collection of corporations known as the FutureGen Alliance will take another look at the feasibility of the project in early 2010 before truly moving forward.

Source: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/06/futuregen/

Tags: Clean coal, geologically complex, FutureGen Alliance, DOE, US Department of Energy, CO2, Wired, Obama Administration, Energy Secretary Steve Chu, Bush Administration, Global Best Practices,

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