SPRINGFIELD – A site just west of Tuscola is one of four Illinois finalists for a $1 billion project touted as the "coal plant of the future," according to Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc.
The FutureGen project is expected to create 1,300 construction jobs at its peak and about 150 permanent jobs at the plant, plus as many as 750 permanent indirect jobs, Moody said.
"The economic impact we just think would be huge," he said.
Landing FutureGen would also be a significant boost to the state's coal industry.
"This will be a one-of-a-kind plant in the U.S., and will put Illinois in a position of being a leader with regard to future coal combustion technology," said Robert Finley, director of the Illinois State Geological Survey's Energy and Earth Resources Center.
The prototype plant is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy and the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, an international consortium of private companies that use or produce coal.
The idea is to build the world's cleanest power plant, with near-zero emissions. The plant would convert coal into a gas that can be turned into enough electricity to power 150,000 average U.S. homes. It will also produce a hydrogen gas that can be used in refineries or clean-burning hydrogen fuel cells.
Carbon dioxide, the unwanted byproduct of this process, would be permanently stored in geologic formations deep underground, a process known as "carbon dioxide sequestration."
According to FutureGen Alliance spokesman Fredrick Palmer, there has already been a great deal of interest in the project.
"We will open bids on May 4, and we expect about 23 proposals from 10 states," Palmer said.
The Illinois Office of Coal Development plans to submit one or more proposed sites by that May 4 deadline. It has already narrowed a list of 30 possibilities to four finalists: Mattoon, Effingham, Marshall and Tuscola.
Public meetings will be held in each of the four communities next week. The first is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 18 at the Tuscola Community Center, where a variety of state and local officials will be on hand to offer information and answer questions.
"A big part of this project at the federal level is demonstrating community support, so we hope to be able to do that," Moody said. "It just looks like a very positive project, and we think it has a lot of potential for Douglas County."
In addition to strong support from local officials and the public, the selection criteria include: a 200-acre or larger site with access to electric transmission grid and natural gas pipelines, sufficient water availability, the right size and type of underground geological formations, and ample construction work force nearby. Other factors that could help include nearby highway and rail transportation, economic incentives and a ready market for the 275 megawatts of electricity the plant is expected to produce.
Moody said the Tuscola site, which is between the village limits and the industrial complex just west of town, has all that and more.
"We're unique in that Cabot and Lyondell, the two companies in the industrial complex, use hydrogen in their manufacturing process, and so my hope is that there may be some possibility for them to collaborate there and use some of the byproduct from this facility," he said.
Moody said it was possible the list of national finalists could come some time in September of this year. A final decision is expected in mid-2007, according to Palmer.
Competition for the project will be fierce, but Illinois officials are optimistic about the state's chances.
"The reason that Illinois coal is good for this is because it is a bituminous coal with a high energy content and it is very appropriate for the gasification process," Finley said. "Within Illinois, the subsurface rock formations are very suitable for storing the carbon dioxide generated by this plant. Therefore, this plant becomes a way in which we can use the state's abundant coal resources without contributing to global climate change, which is believed to be caused by the carbon dioxide emissions."
In December, Illinois formed an alliance with Indiana to help boost its chances of landing the project. In a memorandum of understanding signed by both governors, Indiana agreed to back Illinois' application to host the actual FutureGen plant, while Illinois agreed to try to locate some of the associated carbon dioxide sequestration work in Indiana.
"This agreement shows vision in creating a regional, bipartisan alliance that pools our two states' assets to realize our common goal of developing our abundant coal reserves in an environmentally responsible manner," Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in a written release announcing the pact.
Even if FutureGen ends up somewhere else, Tuscola's selection as an Illinois finalist could be significant. According to FutureGenAlliance.org, all sites that meet the basic selection criteria for FutureGen "should be well-positioned" to land similar plants in the future. "I do think that as a result of this process there are going to be a number of very attractive sites emerge for other projects," Palmer said.