Carbon burial buried
Energy department pulls the plug on FutureGen project.
The US Department of Energy has pulled out of a flagship project to build the first 'clean' coal-fired power plant in the United States, a move that will kill the project unless supporters can rouse Congress on its behalf.
The FutureGen project was intended to demonstrate technologies for capturing and burying carbon dioxide from coal-fuelled power plants; it was scheduled to begin operating in 2012. But its costs have nearly doubled to $1.8 billion in recent years, and last week the department pulled out of the deal after failing to reach a new funding agreement with its private partner, the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, which consists of more than a dozen energy companies. The energy department had been slated to pick up three-quarters of the bill for the 275-megawatt plant.
“I'm disappointed because I thought there was a lot more good than bad in the project,” says Howard Herzog, a carbon-sequestration expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “It's hard for me to see this not delaying overall progress.”
In the project's place, the administration says it will help companies add carbon-capture and -sequestration equipment to new or existing coal plants that have at least 300 megawatts of capacity. Officials say this will ultimately save taxpayers money while allowing the technology to spread more quickly.
The abrupt decision has infuriated members of the FutureGen alliance and the project's political supporters on Capitol Hill. As recently as December, when the alliance announced that the plant would be located in Mattoon, Illinois, the energy department called the project a “cornerstone” of the administration's vision for clean coal. But deputy energy secretary Clay Sell says he realized FutureGen was in trouble when the cost estimate came out nine months before that. “I knew that this would not end well when I saw that baseline increase so dramatically this early in the process,” he says.
Although the energy department and the alliance had agreed to split any further cost overruns evenly, Sell says the department objected when the alliance insisted on financing its share of the project by taking out a loan — essentially reducing its cash contribution.
Rising prices for plant components such as steel and concrete, as well as labour, pushed the price tag from $950 million to $1.5 billion, says Michael Mudd, the alliance's chief executive. He points out that the additional $300 million that boosts total costs to $1.8 billion represents operating costs that will be recovered through electricity sales.
“We are going to work with Congress to make sure that the legislative language exists to keep it viable and on track as is,” Mudd says.