The Department of Energy announced last week that it is sweeping the mothballs off of FutureGen, a “clean coal” demonstration power plant shuttered under the Bush administration due to cost overruns. The renewed venture—to be built in Mattoon, IL—will rely on both public and private funding, with Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy as a major contributor.
FutureGen is set to receive $1 billion in stimulus money set aside for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) research, in addition to $400 million to $600 million from the private sector. The DOE has partnered with 12 companies to date and hopes to increase that number to twenty by early 2010.
CCS involves separating carbon dioxide from coal emissions at power plants and pumping the compressed gas into natural reservoirs deep underground. The technology represents a certifiable wild card in U.S. energy and climate policy, with the future scale of renewable energy options hinging on the success or failure of CCS. To those that doubt the potential of solar and wind to provide a significant portion of the nation’s electricity, CCS represents nothing less than the only option to meet future energy demands while softening the impact of climate change.
Carbon Capture and Storage is undoubtedly the last best hope for the coal industry. Coal’s place as the least versatile and dirtiest of the fossil fuels makes it the obvious first choice to be eliminated from the energy portfolio, and with the crescendo of climate alarm bells finally drowning out the skeptics, the days of using the atmosphere as the coal emissions dump-of-convenience should be numbered.
FutureGen could be a key chip in the high-stakes, dueling public relations campaigns being waged by the coal industry and environmental advocates. The Reality Campaign, a climate action group dedicated to debunking the myth of clean coal, refers to the absence of a functioning CCS project in the U.S. numerous times on its "Facts" page. “There is not a single large-scale demonstration "clean" coal plant in the U.S. today,” one Reality Campaign factoid reads, citing the International Energy Agency. Once operational, FutureGen would be just such a demonstration coal plant, taking away the most compelling point the “clean coal” debunkers have in their arsenal.
While often championed by opposing sides of the energy-climate debate, CCS plants like FutureGen and renewable energy initiatives both face the same primary hurdle—cost. A significant portion of the energy generated by CCS plants would be put toward separating, compressing and injecting carbon dioxide into the ground, increasing the cost of electricity by 25-40% over traditional coal-burning, according to a 2007 Center for American Progress report.
The costs inherent to these new energy technologies can only be balanced in relation to traditional fossil fuel burning by attaching a price signal to carbon dioxide that reflects the catastrophic long-term potential of climate change. Without this economic recognition, projects like FutureGen are doomed to be nothing more than public relations fodder. Once a price is assigned to carbon dioxide, the proper mix of energy options will begin to sort itself out in the marketplace and in the halls of government.
So regardless of whether you wear a coalminer’s hardhat or a Greenpeace bandana, all roads to a stable climate start with a cap-and-trade program or a straight carbon tax.