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US: So much for the future of FutureGen

THE government has pulled the plug on development of a high-tech, experimental power plant that promised to be the answer to the US' quest for clean-burning, affordable, coal-based electricity

After limping along for seven years, the FutureGen project was replaced with a proposal for a facility that would use another technology that, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), could accomplish the same goal at a lower cost.

Plans for the original FutureGen plant, which the DOE now refers to as FutureGen 1.0, date back to February 2003. At that time, the George W Bush Administration unveiled plans for a 275 megawatt (MW), first-of-its-kind facility that would turn coal into synthetic gas and then remove impurities from the syngas before it is burned to generate electricity. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in the process would be stored permanently underground, instead of being released into the air. Hydrogen produced by the plant would be sold for use in transportation fuel.

The FutureGen Industry Alliance, a partnership between the DOE and a global consortium of coal-mining and power companies, would have responsibility for its design, construction and operation. The DOE also agreed to pay 74% of the project costs. Construction was scheduled to begin in 2009 at a site in Illinois, the US state with the largest coal reserves; full-scale operations were set to start in 2012.

Then, in early 2008, the DOE cancelled plans to fund the project, citing significant cost overruns, and said it would finance several smaller coal-gasification projects instead of a single large one. Despite this setback, the FutureGen Industry Alliance forged ahead. The future of FutureGen began to look brighter in June 2009, when the DOE said it would reinstate the project and restart preliminary design work.

But then in early August, the DOE shifted its focus from promoting clean-burning technology for use in new coal-fired plants, to funding mechanisms that could be retrofitted onto the hundreds of existing coal-fired facilities around the country, which account for about one-third of its greenhouse-gas emissions. The DOE will spend $1.1bn in Recovery Act funding to convert an obsolete, 200 MW plant in Meredosia, Illinois, into the world's first commercial-scale, advanced oxy-combustion power-generation facility.

The DOE says: "Oxy-combustion burns coal with a mixture of oxygen and CO2 instead of air to produce a concentrated CO2 stream for safe, permanent, storage. In addition, oxy-combustion technology creates a near-zero emissions plant by eliminating almost all of the mercury, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, and particulate pollutants from plant emissions. National Energy Technology Laboratory studies have identified oxy-combustion as potentially the least-cost approach to clean-up existing coal-fired facilities and capture CO2 for geologic storage."

The decision dealt what could be the final blow to FutureGen 1.0. However, as the DOE points out: "FutureGen 2.0 stays true to the original spirit of the FutureGen project by advancing technology that can make the US a world leader in carbon capture and storage."

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