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Outlook: FutureGen Prepares For a New Life

The Department of Energy (DOE) may have shelved the FutureGen project last year, but the clean coal initiative is not dead, and it may, in fact, be on the verge of a rebirth, according to FutureGen Alliance spokesman Lawrence Pacheco.

"The Alliance has been meeting with members of the new congressional leadership and also with the Obama transition team to urge them to put the project back on the fast track," Pacheco told Power Market Today. "With the new Congress just coming in and the new administration not coming in until Jan. 20, there's a lot of groundwork that needs to be done to educate these new leaders about FutureGen and its importance in meeting our energy demand and reducing emissions, and how this could really be a key component of the national energy and economic recovery strategy."

After five years of planning, site selection and development, DOE stunned FutureGen supporters when it announced last year that it had "restructured" the project to instead focus on adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to multiple commercial-scale integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) power plants. Citing the fact that there were more than 33 proposed IGCC plants in various stages of permitting across the United States, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman said DOE would join industry in its efforts to build IGCC plants by providing funding for the addition of CCS technology to multiple plants to be operational by 2015. Bodman said DOE was backing away from its FutureGen commitment due to rising costs associated with the project and the development of new technology since FutureGen was unveiled. He noted that the original $1 billion FutureGen price tag in 2003 had ballooned to $1.8 billion as of 2008, of which DOE would be on the hook for 74%.

Announced in February 2003, FutureGen was expected to be a cutting edge energy project that could prove that coal can be burned for power generation with little or no pollution. Mattoon, located in the east-central part of Illinois, was eventually selected as the site after a fierce competition. The project was backed by the FutureGen Alliance, a public-private consortium of coal companies, utilities and the DOE. The original FutureGen was slated to begin operation in 2012.

With FutureGen still officially shelved and economic recovery the top priority for most legislators, no new timeline has been establishedl, Pacheco said.

"In the meantime, the seismic work has been completed on the site," Pacheco said. "The Alliance is doing some economic studies and a revised cost estimate study, which it hopes to release early in the new year."

Obama's choice to be energy secretary, Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004, has in the past called coal his "worst nightmare." Obama's choice to serve as assistant to the president for science and technology, a position that includes directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy -- Harvard environmental professor John P. Holdren -- has said he supports coal technology utilizing CCS.

But FutureGen and other clean coal initiatives may have at least one key ally in the new administration -- the incoming president.

While still a senator, Obama was among Illinois lawmakers who asked President Bush to move forward with FutureGen after DOE canceled the project (see NGI, Feb. 4, 2008). In a letter sent to Bush following Bodman's announcement, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives said they had lost confidence in Bodman and urged Bush to continue to support the original FutureGen program.

Addressing Bodman's complaint on the rising cost of the project, the lawmakers said that when the DOE secretary was assured they were prepared to provide adequate funding and to resolve any other outstanding issues between the administration and the FutureGen Alliance if he would take steps to move FutureGen forward, "he unequivocally refused." The Illinois politicians said that it was difficult for them to believe that cost concerns constituted Bodman's real objection to the project. Instead, they said, the decision may have been made because of the selection of the Mattoon site.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who was among those signing the letter to Bush, subsequently said he would hold all DOE nominations until the FutureGen project moved forward. Durbin kept his word, holding three nominations before the end of the year.

Members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation, including Durbin and Rep. Tim Johnson (R-IL) met with Chu last Wednesday to discuss the project's future.

"It is clear after today's meeting [that] Dr. Chu understands the importance of FutureGen to Illinois and is fully aware of the delegation's commitment to moving the project forward," Durbin said after the meeting. "Having fought to keep FutureGen alive for nearly a year, I am looking forward to working with the Illinois delegation, Dr. Chu and the Obama Administration to make this project a reality."

"I am highly encouraged by Secretary Chu's open-mindedness on this issue and, as I told him in our meeting, he is 180 degrees apart from the last secretary of energy, who attempted to abandon this project against all reason," Johnson said. "Secretary Chu agreed that coal is an important element of our energy future, and based on his comments, I remain optimistic that as the new administration gains momentum, FutureGen will indeed be part of our future."

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in August, Obama said his administration would invest in clean coal technology. The energy plan Obama laid out during his campaign said the new administration would provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities and would instruct DOE to enter into public-private partnerships to develop five "first-of-a-kind" commercial scale coal-fired plants with CCS technology. The plan also called for a $150 billion investment over the next decade in low emissions coal plants and other clean energy technologies.

Following Bodman's vow to provide funding for the addition of CCS technology to multiple plants, DOE in August said it would provide as much as $340 million to help fund projects that demonstrate on a commercial scale new technologies that capture CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants and either sequester the CO2 or put it to beneficial use. Under a separate program unveiled in September, DOE announced a solicitation for up to $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for projects that employ advanced technologies that avoid, reduce or sequester emissions of air pollutants or greenhouse gases in the area of coal-based power generation, industrial gasification and advanced coal gasification facilities. The solicitation would make available $6 billion in loan guarantee authority for incorporating CCS or other emissions-reducing carbon technologies into industrial gasification activities, retrofitted and new coal-based power generation facilities. An additional $2 billion in loan guarantee authority would be made available for advanced coal gasification projects, which convert coal cleanly into electricity, hydrogen and other valuable energy products.

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