Plant site finalists to be revealed this week

Plant site finalists to be revealed this week

SPRINGFIELD – On Tuesday morning, Tuscola, Mattoon and 10 other communities will find out if they still have a chance to land the $1 billion FutureGen project, billed as the "coal plant of the future."

Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc., said he was excited to learn that a date had been set to announce the list of finalists.

"It was nice to get it confirmed and not have to worry or wonder about when it's finally going to be coming down," Moody said. "We're excited and looking forward to Tuesday and hope we hear good things."

FutureGen is supposed to generate as many as 1,300 construction jobs with a combined pay of $250 million, plus another 150 permanent jobs once the plant operations begin, so competition has been fierce.

The prototype plant is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy and the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a nonprofit, international consortium of private companies that use or produce coal. In a media briefing on Wednesday, Alliance Technical Support Manager Ken Humphreys confirmed that the list of finalists would be revealed on Tuesday, but declined to say how many sites would make the cut.

The goal of FutureGen is to build the world's cleanest power plant, with near-zero emissions. The facility 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 called sequestration.

The communities vying to host the project include: Tuscola, Mattoon, Effingham and Marshall in Illinois; Henderson County, Ky.; Bowman County, N.D.; Meigs and Tuscarawas counties in Ohio; Odessa and Jewett in Texas; Point Pleasant, W.Va.; and Gillette, Wyo.

Once the proposals were submitted this spring, teams of experts began examining and rating each one, using more than 100 different objective criteria that had been vetted by the public and industry peers. Alliance CEO Michael Mudd said the rigorous selection process was designed to be "fair, transparent and based on specific criteria."

They included factors like the size and location of the proposed site, the size and type of underground geological formations, water availability, access to electric transmission grid and natural gas pipelines, ample construction work force, nearby sources of coal, access to various types of transportation, and potential for exposure to natural hazards. Other factors that could boost a site's chances include economic incentives, expedited permitting, and ready markets for the electricity and hydrogen gas the plant is expected to produce.

Humphreys emphasized that the site selection was a technically-based process.

"It is not politics, and it is not just the companies that are picking the site," he said. "It is driven by engineering, and it's driven by science."

But politicians in the competing states have been hard at work anyway.

The governors of Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania inked an agreement to work together to bring FutureGen to that region, and Illinois formed an alliance with Indiana. Texas enacted a law waiving liability for certain kinds of legal claims that might arise from the carbon dioxide storage part of the project. Various public officials have written letters and made calls to try to bolster their state's chances, and each site is putting together the best package of financial incentives it can.

On Tuesday, the 12 hopefuls will find out whether they indeed have what it takes to make the shortlist. After that, a new round of scrutiny begins. A final decision will be made next summer or early fall 2007.

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