Why a Less Futuristic 'FutureGen' Coal Plant May Not Be Bad

(Energy experts Robert Socolow and Edward Rubin have commented below.)

The Department of Energy's (DOE's) original FutureGen plan, announced in 2003, was to build a near-zero-emissions coal power plant that would revolutionize coal power. To be built in Mattoon, Illinois, it was supposed to look like this:


But instead, DOE announced today, it will look something like this:


"Future"Gen 2.0 will be a retrofit of this existing plant in Meredosia, Illinois. Although it may be a lower-tech facility than planned, energy experts say that's not necessarily a disappointment.

The George W. Bush White House proposed FutureGen as a way of gasifying coal into a mixture called syngas and burning it—a technique called IGCC—which is considered the newest and most efficient way to get energy from coal and produce a pure stream of CO2 that can be stored to avoid contributing to greenhouse gases. But Bush killed the original plan after the cost of the complex project skyrocketed from $1 billion to $1.8 billion.

Now, with $1 billion in stimulus funds, DOE has announced FutureGen 2.0—with decidedly less-aggressive goals. The project will retrofit an existing plant that burns the coal as solid coal—the old-fashioned way, pulverized into fine powder. But it will do so in burners full of rich oxygen, so the coal is burned more fully and produces a nearly pure stream of CO2 and water vapor—making the CO2 easier to collect and store than in traditional plants.

So instead of focusing on new technology for brand-new plants, the move emphasizes the need for understanding the decidedly less-sexy chore of creating retrofits for the coal plants that run today.

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.