Thursday, August 05, 2010

FutureGen moves on without Mattoon plant

By Jamey Dunn

A drastically revamped version of the FutureGen project is moving forward without construction of a planned "clean-coal" power plant in central Illinois.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin announced today the U.S. Department of Energy will go ahead with a plan he called “FutureGen 2.0.” Instead of building a new plant to research a technology called gasification in Mattoon, an existing shuttered Ameren plant in Meredosia would be retrofitted to use a different so-called clean-coal technology referred to as oxy-combustion or “oxy-burn.”

Carbon dioxide emissions from the plant in western Illinois would be pumped through a 175-mile subterranean pipeline through Decatur and then down to Mattoon, where they would be sequestered deep underground in the same basin that the original FutureGen plant would have used to store emissions. Durbin said there is a chance that carbon emissions created by the Archer Daniels Midland plant in Decatur would also be pumped to Mattoon. He added that other carbon producers, such as power plants and oil refineries, might sequester their carbon at the Coles County site in the future.

The original FutureGen project was awarded to Mattoon in December 2007. The Bush administration stalled the project almost immediately after the announcement. As time passed, estimated costs for the plant grew. As of last year, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu pegged the cost to build the plant at more than $2.3 billion. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act included $1 billion funding for the project, but the feds continued to hold out on a final decision, and some financial backers dropped out.

Durbin says that during this time, the need for testing the technology that the Mattoon plant was planned to demonstrate has diminished. He says while the feds dragged their feet, private industry has made strides in testing the clean-coal technology that, at the time of the plant’s announcement, was billed as the first-of-its-kind.

“It became [a method] that was being proved out on a commercial basis,” Durbin said.

Durbin added: “So we had to find another way to create this opportunity for Coles County and Illinois. … One that fit into the existing budget” He called the “oxy-burn” process, where pure oxygen instead of air is used to burn coal, “the future.”

"The technology for repowering and retrofitting plants derived from FutureGen 2.0 will lead to a decade-long project of repowering and retrofitting the 52 coal-fired power plants in Illinois," a written statement released by Durbin said.

The federal government plans to sink $1.2 billion into retrofitting the power plant at Meredosia in Morgan County, as well as building the pipeline and the carbon dioxide storage facility. Federal officials are counting on support from the FutureGen alliance, a group of investors who backed the original project. Durbin says they responded favorably to the proposal. A representative of the alliance did not respond and had not returned a telephone call as of press time.

He says that the project is scheduled to start next year, but he does not have an estimate on a completion date. Durbin estimates it will create 1,000 construction jobs and 1,000 other jobs with business and suppliers serving the project. Meredosia would gain 47 to 50 full-time permanent positions when its plant reopens.

Durbin said there are also plans to build a training center on or near the site where the Mattoon plant would have been built, where workers would learn how to retrofit power plants for “oxy-burn” and build pipelines to transport carbon. Although money for the center has not been appropriated, he says it would come from funds funneled through the Department of Labor for “green” energy training programs.

Durbin acknowledged that the announcement might be disappointing to Coles County residents but said that many had already given up on the long-embattled project. He said that economically, the new plan could actually do more to benefit the area. “Ultimately, the number of jobs we are going to create — permanent jobs — is going to be more.”

Angela Griffin, president of Coles Together — a county economic development group that has worked closely on the project — declined to comment on the announcement. She said she just learned of the changes to the plan today. “We need to digest what we have heard.”

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