FutureGen Dead Again: Obama Pulls Plug On ‘NeverGen’ Clean Coal Project


The U.S. Department of Energy has finally pulled the plug on FutureGen 2.0, which was an attempt to reboot a failed Bush-era “clean coal” project. The final death of this troubled 12-year effort to capture CO2 from a coal power plant and bury it underground is more evidence that we shouldn’t expect large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) before the 2030s at the earliest.

This post will review the ongoing challenges that CCS (aka carbon capture and sequestration) has had, why FutureGen died twice, and why CCS is unlikely to provide more than 10 percent of the answer to the carbon problem by 2050 — especially if the coal industry maintains its suicidal indifference to responding to climate change.

The original goal of FutureGen, a $1.7 billion public-private venture launched by President Bush in 2003, was to “design, construct, and operate a nominal 275-megawatt prototype plant that produces electricity and hydrogen with near-zero emissions,” with the electricity less than 10 percent higher “in cost compared to nonsequestered systems” — all by 2020. Aside from the unrealistic goals, the program was “badly structured, with confusion about whether it was a research project or a demonstration,” as the AP summarized a 2007 MIT study led by Prof. Ernie Moniz (who is now Obama’s Secretary of Energy).

The project was so mismanaged and over-budget it was dubbed “NeverGen” by energy experts — and the Bush administration itself killed it … for a while.

In 2009, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published a major study, “Realistic Costs of Carbon Capture“. The paper concluded that first-of-a-kind CCS plants will have a costs of carbon abatement of some “$150/tCO2 avoided (with a range $120-180/tCO2avoided), excluding transport and storage costs.” This yields a “levelised cost of electricity on a 2008 basis [that] is approximately 10 cents/kWh higher with capture than for conventional plants” — roughly doubling the cost of power from a new coal plant!

In 2010, the Obama Administration restructured the moribund project as FutureGen 2.0 — specifically aimed at retrofitting an existing coal plant in Illinois to capture 90 percent of its carbon pollution — allocating $1.1 billion in stimulus money for the effort (see full Futuregen history here). Obviously it would be vastly more useful to have a CCS technology that could capture and store the CO2 from the flue gas post-combustion produced by thousands of existing coal plants, than to have CCS technology that works only on newly designed plants.

But that technology was even further from commercialization at scale and necessarily involves capturing CO2 that is far more dilute. As a U.S. Department of Energy report had pointed out:

“Existing CO2 capture technologies are not cost-effective when considered in the context of large power plants. Economic studies indicate that carbon capture will add over 30% to the cost of electricity for new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) units and over 80% to the cost of electricity if retrofitted to existing pulverised coal (PC) units. In addition, the net electricity produced from existing plants would be significantly reduced — often referred to as parasitic loss — since 20-30% of the power generated by the plant would have to be used to capture and compress the CO2.”

Probably the core reason for the super slow development of CCS for both new and existing power plants has been the lackluster interest and investment by the private sector. Given how very expensive early-stage CCS is, jump-starting accelerated development and deployment of CCS requires:

  1. a significant and rising price on carbon dioxide to make CCS profitable or
  2. massive subsidies by the federal government or
  3. serious investment and financing by the private sector or
  4. some combination of those three things.

But when the coal industry (and the rest of the fossil fuel industry) helped kill off the big Waxman-Markey climate bill that had passed the House in mid-2009, they effectively eliminated any chance of the first two happening. When the climate bill died, so did the the chance for a predictably rising price for CO2, which is the vital incentive for CCS. Killing the bill also killed the incentives for near-term deployment of CCS that might have exceeded $100 billion (!), which again were vital to jump-starting the entire effort.

The fact is the only hope for the coal industry (at least in a world that does not itself suicidally ignore climate change) is an immediate, very well-funded effort to demonstrate and deploy carbon capture and storage, as I wrote in December 2008 [see “the coal industry chooses (assisted) suicide“]. But the coal industry has never been willing to put up much money, as we have documented.

The only reason FutureGen was temporarily resuscitated in 2010 was the money included in Obama’s economic stimulus bill for clean coal — a bill the fossil fuel industry and conservatives fought against. National Journal reports that “of the $1.1 billion in stimulus cash, DOE has spent $116.5 million since 2010 for work on the power plant, and another $86 million was spent on the underground site envisioned for carbon storage and related infrastructure,”

The DOE realized it had to pull the plug — saving taxpayers nearly $1 billion — once they “concluded that there is insufficient time to complete the project before federal funding expires in September 2015,” according to Kenneth Humphrey, CEO of the private-industry side of the project, FutureGen Alliance.

Significantly, the AP reports on a letter sent to DOE’s Moniz, where “Humphrey expressed ‘profound disappointment’ over the decision,” and further noting “the $9 million spent by the state of Illinois on the project and $25 million spent by private companies.”

So DOE and the state have spent more than $210 million on a project whose primary aim is to save the coal industry in a carbon-constrained world — but industry has spent a mere $25 million. On top of that, Moniz told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) “the FutureGen Alliance was unable to secure the private financing necessary to meet the conditions of the project.”

If the coal and power industry won’t provide serious support for CCS and can’t get private financing, the technology is unlikely to make major advances any time soon. Indeed, outside of China, large-scale CCS projects are on the decline. In October 2013, the New York Times summarized the state of CCS with this headline, “Study Finds Setbacks in Carbon Capture Projects.”

The Times reported that, “the technology for capturing carbon has not been proved to work on a commercial scale, either in the United States or abroad.”

As that story noted, one major CCS demonstration at a West Virginia coal plant was shut down in 2011 because “it could not sell the carbon dioxide or recover the extra cost from its electricity customers, and the equipment consumed so much energy that, at full scale, the project would have sharply cut electricity production.” D’oh!

The 2013 survey by the the Global CCS Institute found that “while C.C.S. projects are progressing, the pace is well below the level required for C.C.S. to make a substantial contribution to climate change mitigation.” The 2014 survey by the Institute found continued progress, but concluded, “the data on large-scale CCS projects highlights two other areas requiring increased attention by policymakers — the lack of projects in non-OECD economies (outside of China) and the lack of progress in CCS technology development in high carbon intensive industries such as cement, iron and steel and chemicals.”

Readers who want more background on CCS might read three pieces I wrote for The Economist in a 2011 online debate explaining why CCS can’t possibly be a stand-alone solution and why we are a long way away from CCS even making a substantial contribution:

One key problem is “the daunting scale of the challenge,” as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

No doubt that’s why the pro-CCS debater, Barry Jones wrote: 

The international community aims to deliver 20 demonstration projects by 2020, applying CCS to various kinds of industrial sectors. The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.

Ahh, if only the climate had two decades to wait….

CCS simply hasn’t yet proven to be practical, affordable, scalable, and ready to be ramped up rapidly. CCS certainly remains worth pursuing in terms of R&D and demonstration — if industry will provide serious support and financing — with the hope it can be, say, 10 percent of the solution by 2050. But as the International Energy Agency has concluded: “On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change … Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

So the lack of commercial CCS for the foreseeable future is no excuse whatsoever to delay rapid deployment of the myriad carbon-free technologies available today that are commercial and practical.