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June 18, 2009

Obama's FutureGen revival draws mixed reviews

This from Rebecca Trager, our Washington correspondent. The progress of FutureGen will be watched closely by those interested in the global potential of carbon capture and storage -- CFM

The Obama administration has reversed another prominent Bush-era science and technology policy decision by reviving the FutureGen clean coal project. But many doubt the worth of the project, and reaction to the decision has been split.

Federal funding for FutureGen, which originally aimed to build a near zero-emissions coal-fueled power plant in Mattoon, Illinois that uses carbon capture and storage (CCS), was pulled in January 2008 by the former Bush administration because its estimated cost had almost doubled, from $950 million to $1.8 billion.

Things became nasty when the administration was accused of deliberately sabotaging the project because Illinois was selected as the site for FutureGen, rather than applicants from elsewhere – including Bush’s home state of Texas.

More recently, Congress’ non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the Bush administration had overstated FutureGen’s likely pricetag. The project’s costs had only risen to $1.3 billion, GAO said. Concurrently, the House of Representatives’ Science and Technology Committee analyzed government documents and accused Bush’s Department of Energy (DOE) of purposely using erroneous figures to derail FutureGen.

The saga is at over for now. DOE’s new director, Steven Chu, announced on June 12 that the department will soon restart FutureGen’s preliminary design activities, and update its cost estimates.

The department anticipates contributing over $1 billion to the effort, and obtaining at least $400 million from industry partners. A decision about the project’s future will come in early 2010.

The administration’s action is unsurprising since Obama represented Illinois in the Senate, and was one of several lawmakers from that state that protested the cancellation of FutureGen.

Illinois politicians – both Republican and Democratic – applaud DOE’s about-face, calling it a “historic moment” for the state and country. They characterize the FutureGen project as having great scientific promise and economic benefits. But others, including many environmental groups, are less enthusiastic.
Greenpeace, however, has protested against FutureGen by putting a fake billboard on the plant’s future site that called it a “$2 billion dollar hole in the ground”. City officials reportedly made them remove it.

CCS is an unproven technology and it won’t be commercially viable before 2020, Greenpeace states. Money spent on CCS means that clean alternatives like wave, wind and solar power get short-changed, the NGO warns. The organization says CCS keeps the hope of coal as an energy source alive, even when it is not needed.

Chu himself has made negative statements about coal and its environmental impact, calling it his “worst nightmare” in December 2008.

The fact that FutureGen’s target for cutting carbon emissions has already been dramatically reduced – from 90 percent to 60 percent – has drawn fire from the project’s critics.

FutureGen’s intent is to test technologies that could later be deployed commercially. But the non-profit Clean Air Task Force says the new 60 percent threshold will achieve levels that are no higher, and maybe even lower, than several commercial projects already at advanced stages of development.  

During these tough economic times, FutureGen’s potential to generate over 10,000 jobs makes it very politically attractive. But overly eager politicians should not cloud questions about its technical merit.

DOE press release


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