The Department of Energy's new plans for the FutureGen project -- a 5-year-old initiative to develop clean-coal technology -- look fishy, policymakers said Tuesday.
President Bush launched the program in his 2003 State of the Union address as part of an effort to increase research and development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies in the United States. CCS technology, if incorporated into coal-fired power plants, could decrease the amount of carbon these facilities spew into the atmosphere by capturing CO2 and storing it, probably by injecting the gas into geological formations below ground.
The technology, though proven, is expensive and has not yet been deployed commercially.
The original FutureGen project called for the design and construction of a 275-megawatt power plant to produce hydrogen and electricity from coal while using CCS technology to capture 90 percent of CO2 emissions. The facility would serve as a demonstration plant and a laboratory for the development of CCS technologies.
In January, just weeks after unveiling their plans to build the FutureGen plant in Mattoon, Ill., Energy Department officials announced their decision to restructure the program, terminating plans to build the experimental facility and, instead, redirect efforts to work with several commercial facilities.
Policymakers aren't happy about the new plan, including Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill.
"This is a project I've been involved with for over five years," Costello said Tuesday at a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. "I have very little confidence that we are on the right track with this restructuring."
But Energy Department officials argue the decision to change directions doesn't change the goal of the program, it just accelerates the realization of CCS.
"The object of President Bush's FutureGen initiative was, and still is, to demonstrate on a commercial scale that our coal resources can be used in an environmentally responsible way," said Clarence Albright, undersecretary of energy, at Tuesday's hearing. "I believe the restructured program will bring us closer to that goal faster than the old program."
The new plan focuses on helping three or four commercial power plant construction projects incorporate CCS technology into their designs. The facilities would be paid for by the private businesses building them, but the Energy Department would fund the CCS equipment.
This new approach will also help lower costs, a concern Energy Department officials had about the old plan. In 2003 cost estimates for the project over its lifespan were about $950 million. More recent estimates, though, placed the price tag near $1.8 billion.
"Ultimately, we didn't think Congress would be able to fund it as time went on," Albright told subcommittee members.
But representatives at the hearing didn't buy it.
Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, said the $1.8 billion figure purely represents inflation, which the Energy Department knew would occur and figured into its budget, according to documents presented during the hearing.
"It looks like the department has cherry-picked numbers in order for us to make the decision you want," Lampson, subcommittee chair, said to Albright.
However, it's more than just a rise in cost due to inflation that the department is worried about, said Megan Barnett, Energy Department spokeswoman. Price estimates show the cost of the program will continue to rise, exceeding $1.8 billion. Under the old program, the Energy Department was responsible for covering 74 percent of those increasing costs, while a group of 13 commercial partners, called the FutureGen Alliance, incurred 26 percent.
"The Department worked with the Alliance to negotiate for cost-sharing beyond the $1.8 billion," Barnett told United Press International. "They were not willing to (split the costs) in a way we found acceptable."
But the new program may not be any cheaper in the end, said Ben Yamagata, executive director of the Coal Utilization Research Council, a non-profit organization comprising major coal producers.
"The amount of funding, $1.3 billion żż over a 14-year period żż does not appear to be adequate to support 'multiple' CCS projects," Yamagata said.
He also questioned whether the available technology was ready for such wide-scale deployment.
"We need to crawl, walk, run," Yamagata said. "We're not ready to start running with commercial-scale plants with this technology today."
Representatives at the hearing also said they were concerned the change in direction will cause a loss of momentum, including Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the Science and Technology Committee.
"I am very concerned that this major revision of FutureGen will delay our development of these technologies which, in my opinion, is terribly unwise," Gordon said. "We cannot afford to take any steps backwards in our federal initiatives to address the challenge of climate change."
Although the original power plant was slated to be online by 2012, the newly proposed projects that will replace the experimental facility won't be up and running until 2016 at the earliest, according to the Department of Energy.
The work undertaken in the past five years to identify a site and design a plant cannot be easily or quickly replicated and represents a loss of time and money, said Paul Thompson, chairman of the board for FutureGen Alliance.
"It will take years for another project to go through this process," he said.
It's not clear what Congress can or will do to keep the original FutureGen project intact, but Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., suggested one plan of action.
"We have to (pass legislation) żż that would not allow the DOE to get out of the contractual agreement" it made with its private partners to build the plant in Mattoon, he said.
Then, when a new administration takes office next January, the FutureGen program would be revisited and a decision would be made -- hopefully in favor of the old program, Shimkus said.
"That is a way to keep the clock ticking until a new administration comes in," he said.
Meanwhile, Illinois government officials told UPI they are disappointed in the Energy Department's new plan -- particularly after investing close to $2 million in the Mattoon project -- but they are hopeful the experimental plant will go forward as originally planned.
"We're trying to do everything we can to make sure the project continues," said David Wortman, the city's public works director, who has spent more than a year on the project. "We're still working on it. We're not looking back."
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