Thursday, December 30, 2004


Somewhere, I ran across a reference to "clean coal" technology, and thought I would blog about it later.  For the past few days, I've been looking at some of the available information.  The US Government has some ideas about this.  From the Dept. of Energy website:
FutureGen - Tomorrow's Pollution-Free Power Plant
DOE's FutureGen Initiative - Artist Concept of Power Plant"Today I am pleased to announce that the United States will sponsor a $1 billion, 10-year demonstration project to create the world's first coal-based, zero-emissions electricity and hydrogen power plant..."
President George W. Bush
February 27, 2003

FutureGen is an initiative to build the world's first integrated sequestration and hydrogen production research power plant. The $1 billion dollar project is intended to create the world's first zero-emissions fossil fuel plant. When operational, the prototype will be the cleanest fossil fuel fired power plant in the world.

The initiative is a response to President Bush's directive to draw upon the best scientific research to address the issue of global climate change. The production of hydrogen will support the President's call to create a hydrogen economy and fuel pollution free vehicles; and the use of coal will help ensure America's energy security by developing technologies that utilize a plentiful domestic resource. [...]
The reference to fuel-pollution-free vehicles is a bit misleading: burning hydrogen fuel does not create pollution, but making the hydrogen, so far, does create pollution.  Still, it is a good idea, because the pollution that is produced can be controlled more easily, if it is produced in a centralized location.  That is what they mean by "sequestration,"  which, in this context, refers to the process of  capturing the carbon dioxide and putting it somewhere such that it will not get into the atmosphere. 

Since it is the holiday season, I decided to try to find something not too critical to say about our Government.  Admittedly, I did not try very hard, but I did try at least a little bit.  It turns out that the government is trying only a little bit to work on the pollution problem, so I think my level of effort, as minimal as it was, was fair.

Anyway, what is all this FutureGen stuff?  The idea is that we still have a lot of coal, but using it as an energy source creates a lot of pollution.  Coal is a fossil fuel.  It was not produced cleanly, and it has been sitting in the ground for a long time.  It contains mostly carbon, but also other minerals: sulfur and mercury among them. Burning the coal transforms the carbon into carbon dioxide, and puts all those other minerals into the atmosphere, along with a bunch of small disease-promoting particles.  FutureGen is basically the marketing name for the collection of technologies that address the problems.  Notably, they do not address the environmental damage that comes from extracting the coal from the Earth, but they do help with the other problems. 

It turns out that not all environmentalists favor FutureGen.  Some think that the extraction of coal is too damaging; that ameliorating the downstream effects of coal burning is not sufficient.  Many environmentalists do favor the technology, evidently recognizing that some degree of compromise is necessary.  Details are on an online magazine called Grist:
Coal Position
By Amanda Griscom Little
03 Dec 2004

When pressed on climate change, the Bush administration is fond of citing "clean coal" technology as the wave of the energy future. Even some enviros are starting to grudgingly acknowledge the technology's potential for good. [...]

Given that coal accounts for a whopping 50 percent of U.S. electricity production, it can't realistically be phased out overnight -- or even in the next half-century -- which means that transition technologies are critical.
FutureGen will cost money.  It is estimated that the design and construction of a prototype plant will cost about one billion dollars.  The details are in their Fact Sheet [112KB PDF].  The current plan is to have the plant operational by the year 2010.  Searching a bit more, at the DOE site, I came across a document entitled "Project Fact Sheet."  eagerly, I scanned to the bottom, to the sections labeled "Project Milestones," and "Project Accomplishments." 

Under "Project Milestones," there is one sentence: "This information is currently unavailable."  Under "Project Accomplishments," there is a blank space. 

Turning to the rest of the 'net, I learn that the reason for the lack of "Project Accomplishments" is that there is a lack of funding.  Although the project was announced almost two years ago, there has not been much done.  The Grist article states:
But despite mounting enthusiasm for the technology, clean coal got short shrift when Congress approved the $388 billion omnibus spending bill last week. The White House was granted only $18 million -- a sliver of its $237 million funding request for fiscal year 2005 -- for its "FutureGen" program to develop zero-emission coal-fired power plants over the next decade. [...]

[...] In fact, the $18 million that Congress granted for the program was all that the administration had earmarked to spend for 2005 -- no plan had been outlined for what to do with the additional $219 million it requested. Moreover, the money for FutureGen wouldn't have been new funding, exactly, but a diversion of money from other clean-coal technology projects.
It seems fair to conclude that the Administration's support for clean coal technology is rather anemic, given that the estimated cost for the pilot project is $1 billion, and so far only one-sixth of one percent of that has been allocated. 

Would it be fair to conclude that the Administration is not at all interested in cleaner energy sources?  Consider this: adding ethanol to gasoline does reduce emissions, and the Administration has subsidized corn production, in part to promote gasohol.  That could be taken as evidence that the Administration does care about the environment.  In fact, they paid $37 billion in corn subsidies between 1995 and 2003.  That comes to eight billion dollars per year.  Yet somehow they can't find one billion to fund FutureGen.  That puts the one billion in perspective.  We spend eight billion in one year on something we already know how to do, but not one billion on something we desperately need to figure out how to do.  The corn subsidies are not an indication of interest in the environment; rather, they are an attempt to buy support from the rural communities. 

So much for the facts.  It is time for idle speculation.  What would happen if the Administration did fund FutureGen, and if it were successful?  For one, the price of oil would go down, which would be bad for Bush's friends.  Two, there would be political and popular pressure for energy companies to actually use the technology, which would require significant investment.  Sure, it would create jobs -- probably a lot of jobs -- but it would cut into corporate profits.

This implies certain conclusions about the honesty and moral character of our President.

According to Cheney, Reagan proved that "deficits don't matter."  Now it appears that Bush 43 has proven that unemployment doesn't matter. 

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