A Big Coal Story

By Lew Tagliaferre


In addition, the federal National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is developing the “FutureGen,” which would be the most advanced coal-fired power plant ever invented. The FutureGen alliance includes major utilities and coal companies. “FutureGen incorporates many of the advanced technological developments we are working on,” says Tom Sarkus, FutureGen project director for NETL in Pittsburgh. “It is the culmination of a number of our research and development initiatives.” FutureGen would be a zero-emission, coal-fired power plant that could also capture and store carbon-dioxide emissions. It is a nearly $1 billion undertaking. Of that, the coal industry will provide $250 million while foreign governments – China, India, and Korea are all involved – will contribute $80 million. The U.S. government will cover the roughly $700 million balance. The initial plant would generate 275 megawatts of electricity, which – if successful – could be replicated around the country. FutureGen was launched in 2004, and the goal is to be running by year-end 2012. There are three basic elements to the project that include the capacity to gasify coal so that it would be cleansed of all the impurities before it leaves the smokestack, as well as the abilities to develop hydrogen and to capture and bury CO2, all of which would address global warming. Pilot projects show that each feature is doable. But, the challenge is integrating each of those attributes into one generation facility. Two sites in Illinois and Texas each have been selected for environmental impact statements, but no selection has been announced yet.

Nevertheless, some critics are not impressed. Google the phrase, “There is no such thing as clean coal,” and you find numerous sources repeating that same mantra. They have a point. It takes years to develop, test, and prove new technology options. In the meantime, the country’s existing coal-fired power plants will continue to burn the black rock while the industry and regulators look at ways of making the existing plants cleaner. The power industry is risk-averse and slow to change. It needs government-sector aid for funding and technical expertise in order to protect its economic profits. “The government must provide financial assistance to advance the technologies to a level that industry cannot do on its own,” observes Ken Silverstein, editor-in-chief at EnergyBiz Insider. The bottom line was expressed by Richard Bajura, director of West Virginia University’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy: “Let’s face it: We are going to use coal.” You can get the coal side of the story at (www.americaspower.org).

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