FutureGen and the cost of CCS

The American Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that it is cancelling funding for the $1.8 billion FutureGen project: a demonstration ‘clean coal‘ power plant to be built in Illinois. The reason cited for the change of position is “ballooning costs.” This makes it pretty unlikely the 275 megawatt plant will be built. Previously, the utilities involved would have been paying less than the cost of an ordinary coal plant, with the DOE paying the rest. Now, they would be paying more than three times as much for a carbon capture ready plant that would not, from the outset, actually capture any carbon.

This raises some serious questions about carbon capture and storage (CCS). A lot of climate plans depend on it, including those as diverse as George Monbiot’s and that of the Government of Alberta. The big question is whether this is evidence that all CCS is ruinously expensive, or simply evidence that this particular project was badly planned.

Some environmentalists are cheering this development, which might make sense if it’s just an example of a big taxpayer handout to industry being averted. Others, however, seem keen to see CCS undermined completely. It is true that it is an untested technology; only four installations in the world use anything like it. It is also true that it could perpetuate fossil fuel usage and slow the development of renewables. At the same time, it must be recognized that building renewables isn’t a purpose in its own right. It is a means to low-carbon and reliable energy. If that can be achieved through a combination of coal and CCS, we should probably be happy – especially given the strong likelihood that many coal rich countries (the United States, China, etc) are likely to burn as much of the stuff as they can get out of the ground for the foreseable future, with potentially ruinous climatic effects.

[Update: 12 June 2009] It seems that the Obama administration has decided to revive the project.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “FutureGen and the cost of CCS”

  1. FutureGen Project Stopped

    “Carbon sequestration, however, is certainly not off the agenda:
    During a conference call Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell said circumstances have changed since the program’s conception in 2003, noting there are 33 applications to build similar coal power plants. Under the new plan, the Energy Department would fund the capture and storage of carbon emissions, while utilities cover the cost of power generation. The Department of Energy estimated the new plants would join the grid starting in 2015.”

  2. Testing Sebelius
    Kansas dirty-energy advocates make their play to allow coal plants

    The fight over coal plants in Kansas has taken another turn. State legislators have introduced a new law that they say is “fair to both sides.”

    That characterization could not be more comical.

    First of all, the bill was crafted in secret by four legislators who are members of the Kansas Electric Transmission Authority and support building the coal plants. No environmentalists were invited to the table, but the plants developer, Sunflower Electric Power, “had input into the legislation.” Nice.

    The bill would allow the plants to be built with some weak restrictions on CO2 emissions: “the new plant would have to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent within one year and an additional 10 percent within 10 years.” Worse yet, the plants would be permitted to emit more “in exchange for investing in renewable energy, conservation or new, more eco-friendly technologies.” And if the plant couldn’t meet even that pathetic standard, it would “pay a carbon tax of $3 per ton of carbon dioxide.”

    Three dollars a f*cking ton? Are you serious? To call that a “pittance” is to flatter it. This basically amounts to a utterly softball CO2 standard with a grotesquely cheap and easy safety valve.

  3. US Pulls Plug on Low-CO2 Powerplant Project

    Geoffrey.landis writes “The administration announced plans to withdraw its support from FutureGen. FutureGen was a project to develop a low CO2-emission electrical power plant, supported by an alliance of a dozen or so coal companies and utilities from around the world. The new plant would have captured carbon dioxide produced by combustion and pumped it deep underground, to avoid releasing greenhouse-gas into the atmosphere. It had been intended as a prototype for next generation clean-coal plants worldwide. Originally budgeted at about a billion dollars, the estimated cost had “ballooned” to $1.8 billion, according to U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.”

  4. Climate Neros fiddle while Rome burns

    Jan 28, 2008 04:30 AM
    Tyler Hamilton
    Energy Reporter

    Governments and industry love to talk about the things they plan to do, perhaps to detract attention away from what they haven’t done or aren’t doing.

    How many radio or television debates have shown an environmentalist pointing out the devastating effects of oil sands and power production in Alberta, only to have industry officials tout concepts like “clean coal” or “carbon capture and sequestration” – as if the solution is here and the problem is being overcome as they speak?

    As Keith pointed out, there’s been no shortage of press releases. According to Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., more than 20 major carbon-capture power generation projects were announced around the world last year – most of them proposed in Canada, the United States and Australia.

    Not one, said Keith, is certain to move forward.

    Last September, for example, one of the biggest “planned” projects in Canada was abruptly cancelled. The project, which would have involved construction of a 300-megawatt pulverized coal plant in Saskatchewan, was originally estimated to cost $1.5 billion. That figure expanded to $3.8 billion within no time, and that’s excluding the carbon sequestration part of the equation.

    What was the industry’s excuse for cancelling it? The government, they said, wasn’t throwing enough money at it. That’s right, the same federal government that keeps talking about this technology as the solution to our woes did not want to commit financial resources.

  5. Clean coal
    Up in smoke

    Jan 31st 2008 | MATTOON
    From The Economist print edition
    Trouble for America’s leading clean-coal project

    IN THE middle of Illinois’s cornfields sits Mattoon, population 17,340. Like many towns in the Midwest, it rose on the railroad. Its most distinctive trait may be that it is home to a Burger King that preceded the fast-food chain—order a Whopper, and you will meet glares colder than an Icee. But in December this small city learned that it would become an international leader. An alliance of energy companies had chosen Mattoon as the site of FutureGen, America’s first coal-based power plant to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground, demonstrating a technology known as CCS. It would be the start of a new era for Mattoon and the world.

  6. Published online 6 February 2008 | Nature 451, 612-613 (2008) | doi:10.1038/451612b

    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.

  7. Senators ask what’s next after FutureGen (04/07/2008)

    Katherine Ling, E&E Daily reporter

    A panel of the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee wants an update on when coal gasification technology will be ready to be deployed to help combat climate change.

    The hearing comes almost one year after the Science, Technology and Innovation Subcommittee held a similar discussion. Experts told the panel last year that while the theory and technologies have been developed and tested, no one knows if it can work on the scale the United States would need.

    Much has changed in the industry in a year, but the ability to commercialize the technology appears to be no closer than before.

    The most significant change is the Energy Department’s “restructured” FutureGen program announced in January. DOE said the small coal gasification and capture-and-storage research project was projected to be well over budget and the “integrated gasification combined cycle” part of the project was no longer necessary because industry had progressed on the technology.

    Coal gasification technology breaks down coal into basic elements such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen and other gases so they can either be burned for energy or “captured” through extraction.

    Most importantly, the process allows carbon dioxide to be concentrated, captured and stored, which would help cut the 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emitted by the nation’s coal power plants annually as older plants retire.

    DOE reconfigured FutureGen into multiple projects in which the department would fund the carbon capture and storage part, and companies who were chosen as partners would be responsible for the coal gasification plants.

    Lawmakers have been critical of this move saying it shows DOE cannot be trusted as a partner, wasted taxpayers money and will seriously delay the demonstration of advanced coal technology. But many in the industry said the new focus on carbon capture and storage — the most expensive element of coal gasification technology — is appropriate.

    While FutureGen is likely to be the center of the panel’s questions, the focus will be on what can be done next rather than trying to figure out why decisions were made, a spokesman for the committee said.

    There are several integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants in the planning process, including in Texas and New York by NRG Energy Inc., one in Minnesota by Excelsior Energy and one in Indiana by Duke Energy.

    But costs and financial risk continue to be a main obstacle in getting the technology off the ground, power companies say. And without a clear demonstration of commercial-sized coal gasification with capture-and-sequestration technology, the supply of the manufactured parts and financial risk will remain prohibitively expensive.

    Southern Co. recently shelved an IGCC plant near Orlando, Fla., saying the plant had become too much of a cost risk, especially since the ability to capture and store the carbon dioxide was nowhere near commercialization. Other proposed projects have also cited cost and deployment concerns as the list of canceled or projects “on hold” continues to grow.

    Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation last year to ban all coal-fired power plants without capture-and-storage technology.

    But Kerry has not ruled out coal as power fuel: He has introduced a bill this year that is very similar to the restructured FutureGen project that would establish a grant for three to five coal-fired power plants to demonstrate the “capture” aspect of coal gasification and another three to five projects to sequester at least 1 million tons of CO2 per year.

    Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, April 9, at 2:30 p.m. in 253 Russell.

    Witnesses: John Marburger, director, Office of Science and Technology Policy; James Childress, executive director, Gasification Technologies Council; Joseph Strakey Jr., chief technology officer, National Energy Technology Laboratory, DOE; Michael Mudd, CEO, FutureGen Alliance Inc.; David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council; and John Novak, executive director, Federal and Industry Activities, Environment and Generation, Electric Power Research Institute.

  8. Best Post Ever?
    By Eric de Place

    Given that coal and oil companies aren’t run by idiots, it’s clear that they’re not going to make arguments of the form “we shouldn’t act to ward off preventable environmental disaster because that would be bad for our shareholders and executives.” Instead, polluting energy firms are going to ride on to the scene as apostles of class warfare, condemning carbon pricing, congestion fees, energy efficiency mandates, and everything else under the sun as an undue burden on the poor.

    As readers know, I think that argument is often factual off-base. But at other times it has some real truth to it. If you make energy more expensive to use, this will inconvenience everyone to some extent, but it’ll be much less of a problem for more prosperous people. But what this analysis leaves out is that the price of inaction will also fall hardest on people of modest means. If changing weather patterns make food more expensive, then burden falls hardest on the poor. If natural disasters destroy people’s homes, then it’ll be hardest for the poor to rebuild. If water shortages lead to scarcity and black markets, it’s the rich who’ll be able to get what they need. This is the general virtue of having a lot of money — it can be exchanged for tangible items of value. Consequently, the downside impact of any widespread change will be hardest on those who have little of it. But that’s not a reason to never change our policies if the status quo is going to lead to even worse outcomes. You’re not ultimately doing the poor any good by condemning them to live in a world of climate catastrophe.

  9. Bush May Have Set Back ‘Clean Coal’ Efforts by 10 Years, Report Says

    By Kimberly Kindy
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 12, 2009; Page A03

    The Bush administration’s decision to halt production of an experimental power plant that would capture and store carbon dioxide emissions underground may have set back “clean coal” technology in the United States by as much as a decade, according to a congressional report released at a hearing yesterday.

    Also, cost estimates used as justification for killing the commercial-scale project known as FutureGen were grossly exaggerated because Energy Department officials did not account for inflation, according to a Government Accountability Office report, also released yesterday.

    The ultimate cost of the plant continues to be a matter of debate. Energy Secretary Steven Chu reasserted his desire yesterday to build the plant but cautioned that price estimates now range as high as $2.3 billion and that he would like to bring down the cost. He plans to meet soon with the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, private companies involved with the project, to determine how best to move forward. The alliance hopes to compete for $1 billion set aside in the economic stimulus package for “fossil energy research and development” projects.

    The research project was announced in 2003 by President George W. Bush, who promoted it as the centerpiece of his efforts to deal with climate change. After spending $175 million on the plant, it was killed by the administration, which cited rising cost estimates and an arrangement that had the government paying two-thirds of the price. Administration officials denied that it was killed for political reasons.

  10. FutureGen was NeverGen from the start
    FutureGen was ‘nothing more than a public relations ploy,’ House study finds
    Posted by Joseph Romm

    In a stunning new report [PDF], two House Committees demonstrate that the Bush administration was never serious about FutureGen NeverGen, the “centerpiece” of its effort to develop “clean coal” technology. Turns out centerpieces are largely decorative.

    Climate Progress has previously documented that the coal industry itself has never taken seriously the development of the one technology that could save the industry from extinction in the face of humanity’s urgent need slash CO2 emissions sharply and avoid its own self-destruction [see here].

  11. U.S. revives nation’s first clean coal power project
    Fri Jun 12, 2009 3:35pm EDT

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced on Friday plans to restart the country’s first clean coal power project, scrapped by the previous Bush administration as too expensive.

    Under an agreement with the non-profit FutureGen Alliance, the Energy Department will take the first steps toward developing the first U.S. commercial scale-carbon capture and storage project, to be located in Mattoon, Illinois.

    “Not only does this research have the potential to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., but it also could eventually result in lower emissions around the world,” Chu said.

    The FutureGen project was scrapped by the Bush administration due to a ballooning price tag of some $1.8 billion. But a congressional report released in March accused the Bush administration of inflating the cost in order to scrap the project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *