A Future for ‘Futuregen’?

  • FutureGen would burn coal and capture carbon dioxide produced in coal plants like this one. (Photo by Erin Toner)

The federal project known as FutureGen now has a home. The zero-emissions coal-to-
hydrogen plant is to be built in Illinois. It’s been in the planning stages for several years.
But, there are skeptics who doubt FutureGen will ever be built. Sean Crawford reports:


The federal project known as FutureGen now has a home. The zero-emissions coal-to-
hydrogen plant is to be built in Illinois. It’s been in the planning stages for several years.
But, there are skeptics who doubt FutureGen will ever be built. Sean Crawford reports:

Many power plants already burn coal, but there is growing concern the
emissions they release into the atmosphere contribute to global warming.
The solution would be a way to use this plentiful, domestic resource – coal –
without emissions.

That’s where FutureGen comes in. The plant, a research facility, would
burn coal and capture nearly all the carbon dioxide produced in the
process. Instead of floating into the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas
would be stored underground. Other emissions such as sulfur dioxide and
nitrous oxides would be removed.

If that plant is successful, it means coal could be a more popular fuel.
Since there’s billions of tons of it in the U.S., it would mean much less
dependence on foreign fuel such as natural gas. Coal could even be a
substitute fuel for automobiles if it’s converted to hydrogen or a coal diesel

That potential for FutureGen to start a coal resurrection almost sounds too
good to be true, and Ken Maize believes that’s the case.

Maize is editor for Power Magazine, which is a publication that for
more than a century has focused on electricity generation. He says for all
the hype over FutureGen, power companies remain uninterested. He says
it would be expensive for them to install technology FutureGen promotes.

Power providers in the private sector, who had been expected to put
money toward the building of FutureGen, have mostly stayed on the
sidelines. That means the cost to the federal government has ballooned to
nearly twice what it was when FutureGen was introduced. Maize has taken
to calling the project Never Gen because he doubts it will be built:

“You know it’s been political from the beginning of course. Bush wanted to show he
was doing something for energy. It has all of the elements of projects, scores of projects that I have seen in the past, that
looked like they were going to go somewhere and the wheels begin to
wobble and pretty soon they come off.”

But the coal mining industry hopes that doesn’t happen with FutureGen.
Phil Gonet lobbies for Illinois’ coal companies. He thinks FutureGen has a

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the funding will proceed. What started as a 1
billion dollar project, the last figure I saw was about 1.4. So you kinda get concerned. And when government is
funding even a portion of that, I think there is some concern but I’m optimistic, the
funding has been included in President Bush’s budget and hopefully
whoever the next president is will see the wisdom of this.”

FutureGen has come under scrutiny for the rising cost, but it still has a lot
of support in environmental circles. Harry Henderson is with the Natural
Resource Defense Council. He likes the potential FutureGen brings, but
says no one should expect a lot of new clean burning coal plants to come
online in the near future, unless the federal government requires tighter
emission controls for existing facilities. As for only building new plants
with the carbon capture technology, he says it won’t make financial sense:

“Presently, an investment in highly, highly expensive infrastructure when they would be
competing against people who would be competing against people who
had absolutely almost no burden to do this, like the current plants that capture absolutely no carbon, when you’re competing against them, it is an unfair competition.”

But FutureGen is a model. It could show what could be done with coal.
That’s important to Illinois, since coal is becoming an increasingly
unpopular fuel because of the growing concern about global warming.

Jack Lavin is the Economic Development Director for the State of Illinois.
He’s put countless hours, energy, and dollars into landing FutureGen in
his state. But while Lavin celebrates Mattoon, Illinois’ selection as home to
the nearly zero-emissions coal-burning power plant, he knows his work is
far from finished:

“There’s lots of competing interests for budget priorities. And we believe that clean coal is a very high budget priority. And that’s going to
take work with the Congress, the Department of Energy and whoever’s in
the White House, to make sure those projects are fully funded… including

It’s unclear if there’s a long term commitment to FutureGen at the federal
level. Construction could begin in another year, but the Department of Energy is already talking about restructuring the project with a hefty price tag, there’s speculation President Bush’s initiative could be shelved once he
leaves office. For those in the coal industry, and the State of Illinois, making sure the federal
government follows through with its promise could be the toughest sell job
of all.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sean Crawford.

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