Friday, April 03, 2009

Zombie Project?

A year ago, the FutureGen partnership to build a prototype low-emissions coal power plant incorporating gasification and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology looked dead in the water. Now, according to Technology Review, it may be on the verge of revival. A cynic would point out that a project sited in the home state of the new President might be a little harder to kill than most. It also can't hurt that Illinois's senior Senator stands high in the leadership of the majority party. However, there may be objective reasons to carry on with the project, particularly if the cost assessments that led to its "restructuring" were flawed, as suggested in a report issued recently by the General Accounting Office. Moreover, although major R&D projects ought to be carried out as efficiently as possible, I'm not sure that project costs should be the primary criterion for evaluating a one-off proof of concept, especially for such a crucial technology.

At its estimated cost of $1.8 billion for a 275 MW power plant, FutureGen must be the most expensive coal-fired power plant project in the world, for its size. That equates to $6500/kW of capacity, roughly triple the cost of a conventional coal plant and six times the cost of the combined-cycle gas-turbine unit that its core power block resembles. In normal utility service it could never compete with the cost of power from other technologies. If the project is successful, it should produce reliable power for many years, but as a byproduct of its principal purpose, which is to demonstrate a fully-integrated process for reducing the greenhouse gases and criteria pollutants from fossil-fuel power plants to the maximum extent possible. While all of the elements of this system, involving the gasification of coal to produce hydrogen, combustion of hydrogen in a gas turbine, and the capture and sequestration of CO2 from flue gas have all been demonstrated separately, with some of these elements in routine industrial and oil-industry service, integrating them at scale and running them together to determine the suitability of such a system for wider deployment has not.

As I described recently, CCS is a key technology for addressing climate change and for holding down the cost of large-scale reductions of emissions, once we've harvested the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency and methane destruction. That doesn't mean FutureGen should be given a blank check, unless the new management at the Department of Energy can convince themselves that, particularly in light of all the work already done on this project, it represents the quickest and most effective next step in proving the technology. In particular, they should assess whether FutureGen includes outcomes beyond a proven prototype CCS power plant, such as opportunities to transfer technology elements to improve the efficiency or cost of other new and existing facilities. For example, could it improve existing integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) designs to increase their efficiency advantage over supercritical pulverized coal and other conventional coal technology, and thus reduce emissions even without full CCS? Could it advance our knowledge concerning the retro-fitting of CCS to existing power plants? If the answers to these questions look promising, then FutureGen deserves reviving, even if that creates the appearance of home-state favoritism.

Note: Energy Outlook will be on vacation for a few days. New postings should resume next Wednesday or Thursday.

No comments: