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December 14, 2011 / Mike Piskur

FutureGen 2.0 lives (for now)

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on December 9, 2011.

Billed as a “first-of-its-kind, near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant,” FutureGen 2.0 is intended to prove that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is a feasible means for cutting CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. In November 2011, Ameren Corp. decided to pull out of the project, but will sell its stake to FutureGen Alliance, the consortium of international energy utilities and mining firms providing private funding for the project. The upgraded power plant is schedule to be operational in 2016.

Nearly a decade after the Bush Administration announced the original FutureGen plan that would have constructed a new facility in Mattoon, the current project will retrofit part of the Meredosia Energy Center at a cost, so far, of $1.65 billion. The U.S. Department of Energy pledged $1 billion in Recovery Act funds to spur private investment in the project. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said FutureGen 2.0 “will help ensure the US.. remains competitive in a carbon constrained economy, creating jobs while reducing greenhouse gas pollution.” CCS technology aims to capture and sequester carbon emissions in storage wells drilled into rock formations more than three-quarters of a mile below the surface. Additionally, the new system will use an “oxy-combustion” process that reduces other greenhouses gases, particulate matter and mercury emissions to “near-zero levels.”

Initially slated to cost $1.3 billion, the most recent cost estimates call for $1.1 billion to upgrade the Meredosia generating unit and $550 million for construction of the CO2 pipeline and storage site. The Alliance, however, claims to have identified potential cost savings that could reduce the price by several hundred million dollars. Once operational, the new system will capture at least 90 percent, or approximately 1.3 million metric tons, of the power plant’s annual CO2 emissions. This technology, however, requires additional energy and can increase a power plant’s energy use by 40 percent. In other words, a CCS facility will burn more coal in order to reduce the carbon footprint of coal, if the technology works at all.

The federal government, electric utilities, and mining companies are eager to prove CCS can be adopted on a wide enough scale to continue burning coal at prodigious rates as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightens regulations on emissions, and especially if Washington can put a national cap on CO2. The commercial viability of facilities like FutureGen 2.0 would allow coal-fired power plants to maintain output while mitigating the impact of CO2 on the climate. The US.. possesses the world’s largest coal reserves.

Despite rapid deployment of wind turbines and solar panels, renewable energy generation accounts for only a small fraction of total generation in Illinois and the U.S. At present, coal provides about half of Illinois’ electricity, and the state’s coal reserves are among the nation’s highest. Assuming that no additional nuclear power plants are constructed and that Illinois doesn’t strengthen its commitment to renewable energy, coal will generate a major portion of electricity for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin played a key role in bringing the project to Illinois. In 2008, the Bush administration pulled the plug on FutureGen as the costs escalated, but President Barack Obama and Secretary Chu used stimulus funds to revive the plan as FutureGen 2.0. Durbin has called it “the most dramatic federal investment in any county downstate”, and voiced approval over the Alliance’s decision to buy out Ameren’s share.

“The FutureGen 2.0 project can move more directly toward its goal of making Illinois and the United States a world leader in cutting-edge technology that will improve the environment and create good-paying jobs,” Durbin said.

FutureGen 2.0 is moving forward, but much uncertainty and risk remains. First, the very nature of the project is speculative. CCS is being used at refineries and to recover additional oil and natural gas by injecting CO2 into wells, but its effectiveness for reducing emissions from power plants remains unproven. Second, construction and operations costs are extremely high, perhaps prohibitively so. As the price continues to grow, the project’s prospects shrink. Expensive CCS technology stands to increase the price of electricity from coal by a significant margin, just when solar and wind energy are becoming cost competitive with coal. Lastly, even if carbon capture and storage does work on a commercial scale, the need for additional energy means more coal will be mined and transported to the power plant. The technology does nothing to mitigate the large environmental footprint of coal mining.

For FutureGen 2.0 to be operational by 2016, the current group of developers must remain intact, which means costs must be contained. If this can be done, then, and only then, will it be known whether the project achieves its stated goals or is a billion-dollar boondoggle.


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