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DOE's $1 Billion Clean Coal Project Mutates Once Again


The FutureGen clean coal project just won't die. The nearly decade-old project has been killed, reborn, and reshaped so many times that we almost forgot it was still around. But it is—albeit in a less ambitious form.

Originally announced in 2003 by President Bush, the $1 billion project was supposed to consist of a new 275 megawatt coal-fired plant in Illinois that captures carbon emissions and buries them underground. Bush killed the project, which would have been the first major carbon capture and storage testing ground, in 2008. FutureGen was revived last year, when the Department of Energy announced that Mattoon, Illinois would be the site of the future coal-fired plant.

And now that plan has been changed yet again. Instead of building a new power plant, the DOE plans to retrofit an existing plant in Meredosia, Illinois to pipe carbon into a 175 mile pipeline that leads to an underground storage site in Mattoon. The previously-planned plant was supposed to use futuristic coal gasification technology, which turns coal into synthetic gas. But the retrofitted plant burns coal the old-fashioned way—by turning it into a fine powder that is easier to gather up and store.

The new plan isn't necessarily a bad thing, explains ScienceInsider:

Energy maven Robert Socolow of Princeton University said in an e-mail to Insider that the move demonstrated "awareness that dealing with existing coal plants is priority #1 for the U.S. as it reduces its CO2 emissions." After all, he noted, a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from coal plants, and "the U.S. will not need to build almost any new power plants if it takes bold steps to improve efficiency in electricity use." That means understanding retrofits could be as important as building "Future" ones after all.

In any case, multiple coal gasification test projects have begun since the original FutureGen's inception. And we'd much rather see old coal plants retrofitted than new "clean" coal plants popping up all over the place.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.