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June 18, 2009

Obama's FutureGen revival draws mixed reviews

by Colin Macilwain

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

April 02, 2009

Edinburgh and Aberdeen win in Scottish funding settlement

by Colin Macilwain

The Scottish Funding Council has announced university funding allocations that reward Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities for their strong performance in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.

But Strathclyde and Stirling universities, which did badly in the RAE, receive reductions in their overall funding — and sharp cuts in the research support component of it — under the settlement, which is released today in a letter to the universities from SFC chief executive Mark Batho.

"This is the start of a brave new world for Scottish higher education," said Batho, noting that the settlement is the first to reflect a new funding structure agreed last year with the Scottish government, whereby universities receive their support from a general fund and a new, ‘horizon fund', which is supposed to reflect the government's strategic priorities.

SFC allocations to support research activity are adjusted sharply in the settlement, mainly as a result of the RAE results. Aberdeen's total research support soars by 22 per cent, to £22 million, for example, and that of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland's largest research university, increases by 10.7 per cent, to £75.7m.

Stephen Logan, senior vice principal of the University of Aberdeen, said that the outcome was "fantastic" for the university and reflected a long-term strategy to strengthen research there. Five years ago, the university was reorganized from 38 departments in six faculties to twelve schools grouped in three colleges, and it is now embarking on a ten-year, £200m construction programme. "This gives us great confidence that our strategy is working", Logan said.

In a statement, Timothy O'Shea, principle of the University of Edinburgh, said: "Since 2002 our objective has been to improve the quality of our research at a faster rate than the upper quartile of the Russell Group of universities - and we have achieved that."

David Gani, head of policy at the SFC, said that the increases for stronger universities such as Edinburgh reflected their RAE performance, rather than any strategy of concentrating resources. "Edinburgh has done well because it increased the volume and quality" of its RAE submission, he said.

The University of Glasgow, Scotland's second largest, will receive £47.3m in research support, up by 1.1 per cent, or less than the expected rate of inflation.

Overall, the SFC's university budget grows by 3.4 per cent this year. Of that, a small fraction is yet to be allocated to institutions, meaning that the total allocation revealed today is up by 2.9 per cent  — close to the likely rate of inflation — from last year.

But research support for Strathclyde falls under the settlement by 5.3 per cent, to £20.4m. And at the University of Stirling, it plunges by 16.8 per cent, to £8.1m. These reductions would have been even sharper but for the SFC's decision to provide an extra £1.3m to Strathclyde, and £1.5m to Stirling, for this year only, to soften the transition. "Our transition problem is not a large one," says Batho. "We had two institutions that needed some level of additional level of support."

Andy Mitchell, a spokesman for Stirling, said that after the RAE outcome, the drop in the research allocation was "disappointing but not unexpected". "The 2008 RAE is already out of date," he said, noting that it was based on work published up to 2006. "We have moved on since then and we have a strategy in place, with our sights set on the next assessment."

Total funding for each university, including support for teaching, is subject to slower change — but still shows pronounced differences between winners and losers in the RAE. Edinburgh's total grant support from the SFC is up 5.3 per cent to £186.5m, and Aberdeen's is up 7.2 per cent to £90.4m.

But Stirling's total allocation falls by 1.6 per cent and Strathclyde's by 0.3 per cent. With inflation further eroding the value of these grants, both institutions face cuts this year. Mitchell said that Stirling was still working on its detailed response, but had no plans to close departments.

As was the case in England, some ‘new' universities benefit handsomely from the SFC settlement, after their better-than-expected performance in the RAE. Research support for Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen grows by 79 per cent to £2.7m, the University of the West of Scotland is up 30 per cent to £1.36m, and Abertay University in Dundee up by 27 per cent to £947,000. However when teaching and other grants are added in, these institutions each receive only small increases in their overall allocations.

Link: Scottish Funding Council Circulars

Link: SFC grants for 2009-10 and percentage changes since 2008-09 (PDF)

Colin Macilwain


Colin Macilwain is Editor of Research Europe and Associate Editor of Research Fortnight.