The Clean Coal Paradox

My informed knee-jerk on the U.S. Department of Energy’s decision to bag FutureGen — the poster child for its clean coal program — endures with followup reporting. That’s what I’m asserting today on TechReview.com in “The Future of Clean Coal” with its deck: “The DOE’s decision to abandon FutureGen could accelerate clean-coal technology.” The bottom line is that over 50 commercial projects using coal gasification put the lie to DOE and the coal industry’s earlier suggestion, through FutureGen, that carbon capture represents next-generation technology.

That said, FutureGen would not be without value. It sought to improve the integration of coal gasification and carbon capture and thus reduce the “energy penalty” associated with carbon capture.

Today’s coal gasification power plants–so-called IGCC plants–cut the energy penalty relative to conventional coal plants roughly in half, cutting the cost of carbon capture from about $40/metric ton to about $20/m.t. (See Table 3.5 in MIT’s 2007 Future of Coal report for representative stats.) FutureGen’s goal was to test novel equipment such as hydrogen-burning turbines to deliver as much as possible on DOE’s clean coal target: $10/m.t.

Reducing the cost of carbon capture would speed up adoption of the technology. However, as Carbon-Nation has argued before, it isn’t a precondition for cleaning up coal. Carbon capture from coal already pays its way regardless. Carbon reductions are trading at close to $30/m.t. under Europe’s carbon cap and trade program (50% higher than the cost of carbon capture from today’s IGCC technology). And the estimated cost of electricity from IGCC with carbon capture–about 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour according to the MIT report–is well below the average price for electricity in the U.S.

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