Saturday, February 02, 2008

FutureGen “Clean Coal” Project Bites the Dust

Citing rising costs, the US Energy Department cancelled a project called FutureGen which was supposed to demonstrate how carbon dioxide released by burning coal could be captured and stored. With the price of the project, which was supposed to be built in Mattoon, Illinois, reaching $1.8 billion and seemingly still going up the Energy Department called it quits. According to a report in The New York Times the Deputy Secretary of Energy, Clay Sell, said that the project would be revamped. The chief executive of the FutureGen Alliance said that canceling the project would probably result in a 4-year delay.

So, where does this leave us. With a leading climate scientist James Hansen calling for a moratorium on new coal-burning power plants which can not capture and store carbon dioxide to keep carbon dioxide from increasing to atmospheric levels that will cause catastrophic climate change this decision clearly leaves us in a bad spot. Efforts to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy simply do not seem to going fast enough to provide enough electricity if new coal plants are entirely out of the picture. However, if more new coal plants are built without the capture and storage capability carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will almost surely overshoot the target of 450 ppm which is supposed to limit warming to 2C above preindustrial levels.

The cancellation of the FutureGen project should be a wake-up call. Maybe capturing and storing carbon dioxide from coal plants is just pie in the sky, either technologically impossible or so expensive that coal could not economically compete as a fuel. Maybe instead of holding on to the coal option, we should start gradually dismantling coal plants and go all out to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Do we really have any other good choice?

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