WASHINGTON – Three years after he first announced it, the centerpiece of President Bush’s plan to produce electricity from coal without adding to global warming is finally getting under way. But it’s off to a weak start.
Like the war in Iraq, success will come to the billion-dollar project, if ever, long after Bush leaves the White House. Critics say the effort, known as “FutureGen,” is too little and too late.
The goal of FutureGen is to demonstrate a new kind of electric power plant that will capture the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by burning coal and keep it out of the atmosphere permanently. CO2 is the principal “greenhouse gas” blamed for the ominous increase in the Earth’s temperature.
Such “clean coal” systems could involve oddities such as upside-down smokestacks to funnel carbon dioxide deep underground or beneath the ocean.
Coal now provides fuel for more than half of the electricity generated in the United States, and its share is likely to rise as the price of natural gas and imported oil soars.
On March 8, the Energy Department asked the eight power companies in the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, including one in China, to propose sites for a demonstration coal power plant. At least 10 states have already expressed an interest in hosting it.
The site proposals are due in May. Environmental analysis will take a year, and a winner will be selected in the fall of 2007. The plant won’t begin operating until 2012.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said he expects FutureGen to be the world’s first “zero-emissions” coal power plant.
“We think we know how to do it,” he told the National Coal Council, an advisory committee made up of coal industry officials, coal users, environmentalists and academic experts, last Wednesday. “Things are moving along, and we are making progress.”
FutureGen is estimated to cost $962 million, with $250 million coming from the coal industry, $80 million from foreign contributors, and the rest from the federal government. The plant is supposed to generate 275 megawatts of electricity, enough to heat 150,000 homes.
That’s only a trickle in the world’s demand for electric power. The United States alone consumes more than a billion megawatts of electricity.
“What we are doing is in no way fast enough or large enough,” said David Hawkins, director of the Climate Center at the National Resource Defense Council, an environmental action group based in Washington, D.C. “It’s like calling for a 20-year research program on improved fire-fighting techniques when the house is on fire.”
William Purvis, a technical expert at the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Fuels, defended FutureGen with another metaphor: “It’s not too little or too late. It’s the cavalry coming over the hill to save the day.”
The FutureGen system will produce electricity while integrating two technologies that haven’t been combined before: a method to capture carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere, plus a method to store – or sequester – the CO2 permanently. Together the methods are known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration.
To capture carbon dioxide, it must first be separated from the coal. This is accomplished in two steps. First, the coal is “gasified” – turned into a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and CO2 by exposing it to steam and oxygen at high temperature and pressure. Then, since CO2 is heavier than hydrogen, it can be chemically removed from the gas, leaving hydrogen as fuel to drive a turbine to generate power. The hydrogen can also be sold for other purposes, such as in a hydrogen-powered car, cutting the cost of the system.
After it’s separated, the stream of carbon dioxide can be piped into an underground salt basin, a depleted oil or gas reservoir, or a coal seam too deep to be mined, where it can be stored indefinitely without polluting the atmosphere.
CO2 can also be pumped into oil wells to drive more oil to the surface. An oil field in Saskatchewan, Canada, uses CO2 captured from two coal-gasification plants 200 miles away in North Dakota, for enhanced oil recovery.
Because coal is plentiful and cheap, but dirty, Bodman said clean-coal technologies like FutureGen are “a necessary, even critical part” of the nation’s energy policy.
The average coal power plant spews out 6 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, about the same as 2 million cars.
Carbon dioxide is “the pollutant that most threatens humanity,” Mike Burnett, executive director of The Climate Trust, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that helps industries limit their CO2 emissions, told the Coal Council.
By 2050, carbon capture and sequestration could account for half of the reduction in carbon dioxide needed to stabilize the CO2 load in the atmosphere, Purvis said.