Government, alliance use same report to back stance

Though they've ended up on opposite sides of how to build zero-emissions power plants, both the Department of Energy and FutureGen Alliance are using a report on coal to back their arguments.

When the Department of Energy announced its plans to abandon its agreement with the nonprofit alliance of 13 international power companies, it cited "The Future of Coal," written at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The main purpose of such a project should be to support commercial power plants, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell said during a conference call Wednesday. The plants would be less of a financial strain on taxpayers because they'd sell electricity.

But a release from the FutureGen Alliance after the department's announcement said the alliance, too, relied on the MIT study to refine its own efforts in constructing the state-of-the-art power plant.

Ernest Moniz, one of the study's authors and director of MIT's Energy Initiative, wrote in an e-mail to The News-Gazette that the study indicated such a large project should allow for commercial demonstration, rather than just research.

"FutureGen has moved in this direction," Moniz wrote.

The new approach may work better to ensure commercial plants, Moniz wrote, "since the private sector may have an easier time following standard commercial practice."

However, Moniz believes that capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground is urgent. And projects like FutureGen take time. In order for the project to have a substantial effect on climate change this half century, "we need to start now, if not yesterday," Moniz wrote.

"To my knowledge, the FutureGen Alliance has put together the only U.S. project that has a complete design ... saving years of time against any new project that might start up," he wrote.

That leads him to believe that the FutureGen Alliance's project should go ahead, but with negotiations on price and turning it into a commercial operation.

Robert Finley, the director of the Energy and Earth Resources Center at the Illinois State Geological Survey, said that he sees how both sides can use "The Future of Coal" to make their points.

"This may wind up being more of a legitimate difference of opinion in some sense," Finley said, because the study calls for research on carbon sequestration while highlighting the importance of commercial power plants.

After observing current power plants that use gasification technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and Tampa, Fla., Finley said they are used commercially, but are almost 10 years old and have demonstrated potential roadblocks. For example, he said, the Tampa plant had trouble when switching the types of coal used.

"They had a lot of issues with being able to operate the plant," Finley said.

Finley's not sure new-enough technology exists to allow for commercial use.

"I personally would not agree that there is enough progress being made to move this totally out of the research realm," Finley said.

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