Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Boondoggle 2.0

"Clean coal" is back again.  This time in the form of the Department of Energy's approval of $1 billion for a "clean coal" power plant in Mattoon, IL under the guise of FutureGen 2.0.  The grant is part of $3.4 billion of stimulus money targeted at "clean coal."  Given the tenacity of the coal lobby, all of that stimulus money might  actually get spent.

The plant is touted as "the world's first, commercial-scale, oxy-combustion power plant" and carbon dioxide storage network.  The phrase "commercial-scale" is key since it is an unproven technology at any large scale.  The project will repower a 200 megawatt coal plant in Meredosia, IL owned by Ameren Energy Resources.  It will be the successor to the FutureGen project that was approved by President George W. Bush in 2003 that was later canceled in 2008 for cost overruns and a lack of tangible progress.

Many folks will call it pork barrel politics.  There is probably some truth to that - it is politics after all - but I think that criticism misses the target.  The bigger issue is pouring a billion dollars down the rabbit hole that is "clean coal."

You can't honestly talk about a "clean energy economy" and support the burning of coal.  To strip out the toxins and carbon from the process of burning coal, we might end up providing the coal-based utilities with subsidies that rival those of wind and solar.  It won't be technologically feasible to achieve large scale carbon capture and sequestration for decades, no matter what the fancy commercials on TV say.  I like this one better:

Let's not forget the pollution caused by mining coal.  There is so much talk in the Appalachian region about the potential for natural gas drilling to taint water supplies. Clearly local residents have forgotten the environmental damage caused by a century of coal mining.  Don't even get me started on mountaintop removal mining.  It blows me away that strip mining coal has been getting a pass for years but natural gas drilling is suddenly a villain.

I also read today that the construction of traditional coal plants is on the rise again. Confidence seems to be growing that there will be no new energy policy that will substantially restrict carbon emissions in the near future.  The Associated Press says that 16 coal-fired plants have opened since 2008 and 16 more are under construction, for a combined total of 17,900 megawatts of power.  It's hard to compete with coal on a cost basis when you don't include the externalities.

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