March 2008

U.S. dumps FutureGen project

The future of clean coal in America will be something other than it was in 2003 as the Department of Energy abandoned FutureGen-the prototype for the coal-burning power plants.

FutureGen had been the Bush administration's showcase project to produce carbon-free power and hydrogen from coal.

Technology Review reported the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) decision in late January to back out of the project, which was meant to build an advanced coal-gasification plant designed to sequester its carbon dioxide emissions underground, is once again fueling debate over the future of clean-coal technology in the U.S. 

Some energy-policy analysts said technology development and changing priorities have simply made FutureGen obsolete. In fact, they said the DOE's plans instead to finance carbon-capture equipment at commercial power plants could actually accelerate the implementation of the clean-coal vision that FutureGen once represented. 

In a statement released last week, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman explained FutureGen had become too expensive. 

Indeed, FutureGen's predicted price tag has gone from $950 million in 2003 to $1.5 to $1.8 billion today. 

FutureGen also fell victim to public concern over rising greenhouse-gas emissions and the emergence of rival commercial projects. 

Utilities have proposed more than 50 Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plants, which are similar in design to FutureGen. 

Both technologies convert coal into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The commercial IGCC plants burn the mixed gases, producing a more concentrated (and thus easier to capture) stream of carbon dioxide than conventional power plants do. 

In contrast, FutureGen's design would remove the carbon before the combustion of pure hydrogen in more efficient but as yet unproven ultrahigh-temperature turbines, further reducing the energy penalty caused by carbon capture. 

Since the commercial plants use existing equipment, they are considerably cheaper to build than FutureGen would have been. 

For example, utility giant American Electric Power estimates the 629-megawatt IGCC plants it wants to build in Ohio and West Virginia would cost about $2.5 billion each, including carbon capture, which is at least 27% cheaper per megawatt of power produced than projected costs for FutureGen.