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.