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Back to the FutureGen: Obama Revives Coal Plant August 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Politics.
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Earlier this month, the Obama administration awarded $1 billion to revive FutureGen, a commercial-scale advanced coal power demonstration plant that was both proposed and killed during the Bush administration. As a coal-state senator, Obama has long supported projects such as this, and this funding is consistent with promises made on the campaign trail.  The resurrected project has been dubbed FutureGen 2.0.

Originally announced in 2003, FutureGen was intended to combine and test a number of different advanced coal technologies* (explained at the bottom of this post for those who are interested).

An artist's rendition of the FutureGen coal plant.

The most anticipated technology to be tested at  this plant was the underground storage of carbon dioxide emissions, known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), the subject of an entire previous post.  This technology could theoretically allow us to burn coal without releasing greenhouse gases.

If coal is to have any real future, it will be completely reliant upon some form of CCS technology; without it, “clean coal” does not exist and coal will not be able to compete with other energy sources if/when any kind of price or limit is established on carbon pollution*.  So coal companies have a prominent stake in this project.

It makes sense, then, that this project was a joint venture between the federal government and a corporate consortium called the FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc.  Alliance members include major coal companies from both the United States and around the world; as I said, the future of coal power depends upon the development of CCS technology**.

The project was originally planned to cost $950 million, but expected costs continually rose.  After five years, in January 2008, the Bush administration cancelled funding for FutureGen largely because the expected cost had ballooned to $1.8 billion (with the government on the hook for a much larger share than the private sector**).

Interestingly, it was reported in 2009 that the Energy Department had made a $500 million accounting error in projecting those increased costs; the price tag had indeed gone up, but it had not actually doubled.  This adds another layer of intrigue to the already curious circumstances of the project’s first death.

Cost was the stated reason for cancelling FutureGen, but there were other plausible motives.  A number of states actively pursued the investment and jobs that FutureGen would create.  The final four potential sites were split evenly between Illinois and Texas.  Just three weeks before our nation’s most prominent Texan killed FutureGen, Mattoon, Illinois was selected as the future home of FutureGen.

So when the funding disappeared, the Illinois delegation immediately accused Bush and his Secretary of Energy of having ulterior motives.  And the accusations weren’t beyond belief, especially given the deceitful manner in which the funding was withdrawn: the administration announced its intention to pull the plug literally the day after President Bush highlighted federal investment in advanced coal technology during his State of the Union address.  Political promises are often broken, but not often within the first 24 hours.

Yet after all that effort to bring FutureGen to Mattoon, the Illinois town pulled out of the project last week.  Their decision makes some sense.

FutureGen 2.0 is notably different from its predecessor; instead of building a completely new plant, the new plan is to retrofit a currently mothballed coal plant 150 miles away in Meredosia, Illinois.  Mattoon was still a key player in the new plan, however: the town boasts one of the country’s most ideal geological formations to store carbon dioxide underground.  FutureGen 2.0 planned to store carbon dioxide beneath Mattoon via a pipeline from Meredosia.

As I have previously described, if CO2 were to leak out from an underground reservoir, the denser CO2 can displace all the oxygen near the ground and smother any living thing above. It has happened before.  A particular geological formation might be structurally sound and contain CO2 for now, but we are not talking about short-term storage, and geology is not permanent.  Mattoon residents were reminded of this just 6 months ago.

The Midwest is not commonly known for its earthquake activity, but Mattoon is just 100 miles from the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone.  On February 11 of this year, a 3.8-magnitude earthquake shook southern Illinois.  And in 2008, a 5.2-magnitude quake was centered 200 miles from Mattoon.

To make matters worse, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the nearby New Madrid Seismic Zone has a 90% chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 quake in the next 50 years.

Nearby seismic zones and the locations of earthquakes magnitude 2.5 or greater.

I’m not a geologist, but that worries me a little.  If I lived in Mattoon, I wouldn’t find the prospect of carbon storage in my back yard very attractive without $1 billion in investments either.

But other towns are already lining up to take Mattoon’s spot, and lawmakers from my native Illinois are doing everything they can to keep this project close to home.  FutureGen 2.0 is very much alive.


* FutureGen Technologies:

FutureGen is planned to be an “Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle” plant (aka IGCC).   Coal gasification is a process that breaks down coal into its chemical components and produces, among other things, a cleaner-burning gas that no longer contains many of the pollutants in coal.  Another product is hydrogen, and this plant is supposed to test the commercial viability of creating fuel hydrogen from coal.

The “Combined Cycle” refers to a more efficient design that uses two turbines to generate power instead of just one: the primary turbine is powered by that gasified coal, but a secondary steam turbine generates extra electricity from all the heat generated by the gasification process and primary generation.

In a traditional power plant (and the vast majority of industrial facilities around the world), vast quantities of heat are produced and wasted.  That heat could be used to generate electricity or heat facilities or water.  Anyone interested in more on this should look up “Combined Heat and Power” aka “Cogeneration.”

Additionally, FutureGen is designed to demonstrate oxy-combustion technology that produces a more manageable stream of carbon dioxide that is better suited for storage.

** Funding FutureGen:

America today is undeniably dependent upon coal power.  Carbon-free coal would certainly be in our national interest.  It would be a boon.  However, the coal industry, for obvious reasons, is entirely dependent upon coal power for its survival.  America can survive without coal; the coal industry cannot.  For that reason, it has always rubbed me the wrong way that the Department of Energy agreed to provide nearly three quarters of the funding for FutureGen, with industry exposure limited to just $400 million – to fund their own survival.  Why taxpayers should pay so that a polluting industry can have a future is beyond me.

It is also worth noting that according to a report released late last week by a CCS Task Force established by President Obama, the key barrier to CCS deployment is the lack of comprehensive climate change legislation. So coal companies are both taking taxpayer money to fund their only chance for a future and spending their own money to fight against that very same future.

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Dethroning King Coal December 1, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal.
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Last month I was fortunate enough to drive through – and not stop in – the lovely state of West Virginia.  It was dark, but between the mountain passes I did get to do some sightseeing.  I was impressed by the neoclassical grandeur of the state capitol building, but I was also treated to pollution-belching industrial complexes beautifully backlit by gas flares.   The scene was reminiscent of, but did not smell quite as bad as, Gary, Indiana – a real gem in a state that prides itself on being “The Crossroads of America” (read: between places worth visiting).  But I digress.

Drifting somewhere between “the zone” and highway hypnosis, I was jarred awake by a billboard just past Charleston.  It said, “YES COAL. Clean, carbon neutral coal. ” I slammed on the brakes so hard I was nearly rear-ended as I slowed to make sure I’d read correctly.  ‘Clean’ is already a sleazy misnomer for coal, but ‘carbon-neutral’? That sign’s not just wrong, it’s probably illegal: There are laws protecting the public from false advertising.

clean-coal

An ad like the one I saw. Maybe your head didn't just explode, but this is ridiculous.

There is no way to burn coal without releasing its carbon.  That’s just how combustion works.  The only way that billboard is not a blatant mistruth is as a deceitful allusion to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) a process that theoretically would allow us to catch carbon dioxide as it’s emitted.  But CCS is expensive and has yet to be practically implemented, so coal remains our most carbon-intensive (and dirtiest) energy source.

Walker Machinery, the mining equipment supplier responsible for this and other misleading coal ads, even admits on its Web site that its statements refer to the [ideal] future of coal, not the present.  And that dirty present has gotten some attention lately.

One of Walker Machinery’s major customers is Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company.  Massey has received a lot of negative press.  In 2006, notorious CEO Don Blankenship was sued with Massey when his unrelenting emphasis on coal production over safety led to two deaths in a mine fire.  Last year, Massey was sued for committing up to $2.4 billion worth of violations of the Clean Water Act.  And this year, two West Virginia Supreme Court Justices had to recuse themselves from a case against Massey after photos surfaced of one vacationing with Blankenship on the French Riviera.  The court, led by a third justice on whose campaign Blankenship spent $3.5 million but who has still ruled on numerous cases about Massey, voted to overturn a previous $77 million verdict against the company (see video below).

ABC’s Nightline reports on Don Blankenship.  Check this out.

How has Massey responded to its criticism? Blankenship unloaded on coal critics last week at the Tug Valley Mining Institute, calling them “communists,” “atheists” and “greeniacs.” He then compared environmentalists to Osama bin Laden.   But my favorite quote was, “Most people wouldn’t believe that coal is the most important thing to the environment. ” I’ll provide some context lest that sound silly: the environment to which he was referring was the “total environment,” which is composed not just of “trees and all that” but also of the ability to send our children to school.

Oh, that environment…wait, what?

Blankenship’s rant went on to sympathize with like-minded people who don’t believe in climate change but are “afraid to say that because it is a political reality.” Without exploring the remarkable similarities between his “political reality” and our “actual world,” I’d just like to say I hope that in this new political era we can set aside pesky realities and embrace fanatical utopias where ignoring something hard enough makes it magically disappear.  Viva la status quo!

But coal executives like Blankenship have reason to be cranky these days.  Two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that utilities must apply the best available control technology for carbon dioxide emissions at new coal-fired power plants.  This really just updates EPA policy to start treating CO­2­ like other pollutants, but it has serious implications for the future expansion of coal power – unless they can show us some clean, carbon-neutral coal plants.

Yet the Bush bonanza is not quite over.  The EPA ruled against utilities, but coal mining continues as usual.  And according to a blog post by Rob Perks at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA is soon expected to weaken environmental regulations on toxic mining waste.  The governors of Tennessee and Kentucky have opposed this assault on their states’ water quality; West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has not, tacitly upholding his state’s submission to the coal industry at the expense of environmental and public health.

Just last week Massey Energy received approval to flatten another West Virginia mountain in search of coal.  Local citizens are pleading with the governor to rescind the permit, claiming that the mountain has enough wind potential to cleanly power up to 150,000 homes.  Would it be so terrible for West Virginia to invest in some renewable energy and preserve the mountains that drive its valuable tourism?  That would certainly be a step in a new direction.

mountaintop

This used to be a mountain before coal mining. For a sense of scale, those are 6 cars just left of center in front of that road across the middle.

Governor Manchin, when it gets so bad that passing college kids feel comfortable casually deriding your entire state, maybe it’s time for a change. America already has a Gary, Ind.  Why don’t you help keep West Virginia “Wild and Wonderful” by leaving a few of its mountains intact?

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.