Blood on the Coal

The Bush SOTU curse sets back clean-coal research.

James’ questions on Britain’s options for reducing CO2 emissions from electricity generation frame the issue well, and apply (in different measures) to the US as well. One question asks

Can Britain avoid the need for nuclear power stations by retrofitting coal power stations for carbon capture?

Capture (removing carbon from the waste stream) is only half the battle—you have to put all that carbon (as compressed or liquefied CO2, or some other compound) somewhere. Proposed sinks include soil, ocean depths, underground reservoirs, and the US DOE is exploring all these options.

On the capture side, the potential for retrofitting existing coal-fired plants is limited by the low concentration of CO2 in flue gases, so the great hope has been for coal gasification. This process produces hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide from coal; the CO is converted to CO2 and then…well, it depends on what sequestration scheme turns out to work. Gasification got a big boost from the DOE FutureGen Alliance, which has been central to the Bush Administration’s energy R&D strategy. Indeed, the President mentioned it in the 2006 SOTU, and again in this year’s address.

But FutureGen had a slight hiccup this week:

The Energy Department said yesterday that it would ask for new proposals from companies seeking federal aid for capturing and storing carbon dioxide released by coal-fired power plants, officially shelving the FutureGen Alliance project that the Bush administration had supported for five years.

Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell said the administration was dropping the FutureGen Alliance project because costs for the planned 275-megawatt coal-fired plant had risen to $1.8 billion and because of advances in technology. Instead, the department said it would be willing to pay the cost of adding carbon capture and storage technology to new or existing coal plants bigger than 300 megawatts. Sell said that would lead to multiple projects and more sequestration.

Is there an SOTU curse on ambitious federal projects? If so, all the hard-won advances in the manned Mars mission, ridding high-school sports of steroid abuse, and stopping the rise of man-beast hybrids may be in jeopardy.