HOUSTON (Reuters) - The FutureGen Alliance selected a site in Illinois to build a $1.5 billion electric generating plant that industry officials say is needed to research and test technology to burn coal and control carbon dioxide emissions which are blamed for global warming.
Mattoon, Illinois, was selected over other sites in Illinois and Texas, FutureGen officials said on Tuesday.
The public-private venture, which includes companies from around the world and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, was formed in 2003 to design and test technology required to turn coal into a gas that can be stripped of harmful emissions, then burned to produce electricity and hydrogen.
FutureGen’s most ambitious goal is to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground permanently.
The research effort has gained importance as concern about increased levels of greenhouse gas, including carbon dioxide, have led to delay and cancellation of numerous coal-fired projects in the United States, including plans for integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants.
Uncertainty about carbon emissions “underscores the need for a public-private venture such as FutureGen to advance cutting-edge technology,” said Michael Mudd, chief executive of the alliance.
The next challenge will be for FutureGen to obtain government funding even if costs climb, said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democratic member of the appropriations committee.
Unlike the failed Superconducting Super Collider project that was canceled in the 1990s after its usefulness was questioned and costs soared, FutureGen “is about energy,” Durbin said. “Everyone is focused on energy independence, security and the environment.”
If FutureGen succeeds, it will allow the nation “to tap into a resource we’ve had to walk away from for the last 20 years,” Durbin said. More importantly, Durbin said he wants to see technology to sequester carbon dioxide proven, “not just for coal, but for many other purposes.”
While dozens of factors such as land, water and geology were scrutinized in the site-selection process, an ability to pump carbon dioxide directly underground from the plant was cited as one advantage that put Mattoon ahead of other finalist sites in Tuscola, Illinois, and Jewett and Odessa, Texas.
“Mattoon offered the best chance of success for this project,” Mudd said. The group hopes to begin construction in 2009 to bring the 275-megawatt plant online in 2012.
Knowledge gained at FutureGen will help an industry that is struggling to keep pace with growing demand for electricity in economical ways that do not hurt air quality, Mudd said.
FutureGen will be an “important piece of the puzzle” for the power industry, said Mark Hornick, general manager of TECO Energy’s IGCC plant in Florida, said at a coal conference late last month. TECO delayed expansion of its IGCC plant, citing uncertainty over state regulation of carbon.
A Sierra Club official said no additional coal plants should be built in the U.S. until FutureGen proves that carbon emissions can be safely captured and stored.
Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club director, said the country should invest in renewable energy sources and programs to increase efficiency.
The 13-member FutureGen Alliance includes U.S. utilities and coal producers like American Electric Power Co and Peabody Energy, along with international miners Anglo American, BHP Billiton and China’s largest coal-based power company, China Huaneng Group.
Additional reporting by Bruce Nichols in Houston; editing by Matthew Lewis