Promise of a ‘clean coal’ future far from reality

[dropcap color=”#dd9933″]M[/dropcap]EREDOSIA, Illinois—In 2003 President George W. Bush unveiled plans for the world’s first zero-emissions coal plant, a project that would serve as a global showcase of America’s ability to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

This FutureGen plant would be “one of the boldest steps our nation takes toward a pollution-free future,” declared Spencer Abraham, Bush’s energy secretary, in 2003.

The knowledge we gain from the plant “will help turn coal from an environmentally challenging energy resource into an environmentally benign one.”

More than a decade later, there has yet to be a groundbreaking for FutureGen 2.0.

The project calls for overhauling an aging coal plant on the outskirts of this sleepy river town so that its carbon emissions can be captured and stored some 4,300 feet underground. But the effort has been beset by political infighting, design changes and escalating costs that helped trigger a rebellion by the state’s largest utility.

FutureGen’s tortured birthing process reflects broader problems in the global effort to spur development of “clean coal” plants and carbon-capture technology—considered key steps in the battle to slow climate change.

Even the Energy Department now has doubts about whether FutureGen will succeed. Last year the department designated the FutureGen alliance charged with building the project as a “high-risk” grant recipient that might not be able to meet a September 2015 deadline for spending $1 billon in federal stimulus dollars, according to a document reviewed by The Seattle Times.

The International Energy Agency has tagged carbon capture as a key part of the struggle to head off the most extreme impacts of climate change, and hopes it will be in wide use by midcentury or earlier.

But so far, no country has hammered hard enough with regulations, or created strong enough financial incentives to spur widespread conversions to the costly and still evolving technology.

Many renewable-energy advocates don’t see carbon capture as a viable strategy to fight climate change. They are convinced solar, wind, hydroelectric and perhaps nuclear power can be the mainstay of 21st-century global energy.

Supporters of carbon capture say such predictions drastically overstate how swiftly and broadly the world can shift away from the use of coal, oil and natural gas. They forecast that carbon capture—even with construction and operating costs some 30 percent to 70 percent higher than traditional coal plants—will be a cheaper option than paying the costs associated with extremes of climate changes.

“If you want to continue to rely on fossil fuels, and reduce carbon emissions—not by a little, but by a lot—then this is the only game in town,” said Edward Rubin, a lead author of a carbon-capture report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In North America the project furthest along is in Canada, where SaskPower later this year is scheduled to start up a 110-megawatt unit that will capture more than 1 million tons of carbon a year.

In the US, Congress has appropriated some $6 billion since 2008 for research and other efforts to spur development of carbon capture. One Texas project, scheduled to kick off this year, plans to turn a profit by pumping carbon emissions from a coal plant into an agin

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