FutureGen 2.0

The first two weeks of August saw two big news items from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) related to carbon capture and storage (or CCS, for an overview of CCS see the our Climate TechBook CCS brief). First, on August 5, DOE announced its plans for FutureGen 2.0. One week later, President Obama’s Interagency Task Force on CCS delivered its final report and recommendations regarding overcoming “the barriers to the widespread, cost-effective deployment of CCS within 10 years, with a goal of bringing five to ten commercial demonstration projects online by 2016” (see the separate post regarding the task force’s report).

Why is this FutureGen announcement from DOE important? CCS is anticipated to be a key technology for achieving large reductions in U.S. and global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (for example, see the recent projection from the International Energy Agency that CCS could provide nearly one fifth of all global GHG emission reductions by mid-century). Initial commercial-scale CCS demonstration projects are a critical step in advancing CCS technology; these projects provide valuable experience and confidence in “scaling-up” CCS technologies and technology improvements and cost reductions from “learning by doing.” The aforementioned report from the Interagency Task Force on CCS notes that FutureGen is one of ten planned CCS demonstration projects supported by DOE (see Table V-2 of the task force’s report for the list of seven power-sector and three industrial CCS projects).

The FutureGen project has had a somewhat tumultuous history. In 2003, DOE announced its plan to work with an industry consortium on the FutureGen plant to demonstrate commercial-scale integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology coupled with (pre-combustion) CCS at a single new coal-fueled power plant (with DOE covering most of the project’s costs). In 2007, the industrial consortium selected a site in Mattoon, IL, for the FutureGen power plant. In 2008, though, DOE abandoned the idea citing the escalating cost estimates for the FutureGen project and decided instead to pursue cost-sharing agreements with project developers to support multiple CCS demonstration projects (this time with DOE covering a smaller fraction of project costs). DOE received only a small number of applications for this restructured FutureGen approach, and this change of plans came in for some criticism from the Government Accountability Office (the GAO report also provides a helpful overview and history of what might now be referred to as “FutureGen 1.0”).

In 2009, the Obama Administration revived plans for a single FutureGen plant and restarted work with the industrial consortium on preliminary design and other activities, promising a decision in 2010 on whether to move forward with the project. That decision came on August 5 and included another shift in DOE’s plans for the FutureGen project (now dubbed “FutureGen 2.0”). Energy Secretary Chu announced the awarding of $1 billion in Recovery Act funding for the repowering of an existing power plant in Meredosia, IL, as a coal-fueled power plant using oxy-combustion and CCS. With “FutureGen 2.0,” DOE decided to change from building a new plant to repowering an existing one and chose a different technology (oxy-combustion with CCS rather than IGCC with CCS).

When subsidizing initial CCS demonstration projects, policymakers should support a variety of relevant technologies and configurations. With respect to applying CCS technology to coal-fueled electricity generation, there are factors that are expected to make certain variants of CCS technology more appropriate for certain circumstances. These factors include the application of CCS with: new plants vs. retrofitting/repowering existing plants; different coal types; and various geologic formations for CO2 storage. Importantly, there are three types of CO2 capture technology—pre-combustion, post-combustion, and oxy-combustion—with the latter two appropriate for use at existing coal-fueled power plants (see our Climate TechBook CCS brief for details). 

With its new approach for “FutureGen 2.0” DOE has focused on large-scale demonstration of oxy-combustion. Of the ten CCS demonstration projects supported by DOE, FutureGen will be the only one to use the oxy-combustion technology. Of the 34 large-scale power plant CCS projects worldwide tracked by MIT, only four (counting FutureGen) use or plan to use oxy-combustion, and FutureGen will be the only such oxy-combustion project in the United States. Given the greater focus so far given to the two other alternative CCS approaches, oxy-combustion is likely the CCS technology that can most benefit from the FutureGen large-scale demonstration project.

With its new approach for “FutureGen 2.0,” DOE is taking an important step in demonstrating a portfolio of different CCS technologies. Such demonstrations, along with other supportive government RD&D policies, provide a critical “push” for low-carbon technologies. Long-term policy certainty (such as from a GHG cap-and-trade program) for the private sector regarding future GHG emission reduction requirements can provide the necessary technology “pull” to guide private investments in widespread deployment of CCS and other low-carbon technologies.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow

CCS Recommendations Hit President’s Desk

Last week, the Obama Administration’s Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) released its final report and recommendations. President Obama created the task force, co-chaired by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and involving 14 executive departments and federal agencies, in February. The President’s directive charged the task force with delivering “a proposed plan to overcome the barriers to the widespread, cost-effective deployment of CCS within 10 years, with a goal of bringing 5 to 10 commercial demonstration projects online by 2016.”

Nuclear Waste Commission, Yucca Mountain, and Loan Guarantees

Recent news has cast a spotlight on nuclear power. We’ve blogged before about nuclear power and its potential to play a large role in decarbonizing the electricity sector.

First among the big news items related to nuclear power is the official naming by the Obama Administration of a much-anticipated Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to recommend a safe, long-term solution for used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. The commission, announced on January 29, will issue its final report within 24 months. Energy Secretary Chu noted that the commission is not tasked with recommending a site for a long-term waste repository.

Natural Gas and Our Energy Future

We just added a brief on natural gas to its Climate TechBook that helps to explain why natural gas is unique among fossil fuels. Natural gas is both a contributor to climate change (natural gas combustion accounts for about 16 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions) and an option for reducing emissions since natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal and petroleum. The United States could actually reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by burning more natural gas if it’s displacing other fossil fuel use (this is particularly the case for fuel switching from coal to gas in power generation).

Like coal, but unlike petroleum, natural gas is primarily a domestic energy resource, with net imports of natural gas constituting only about 13 percent of U.S. consumption and about 90 percent of imports coming from North America. Unlike coal (93 percent consumed for electricity generation) and petroleum (more than two thirds used for transportation), natural gas consumption is more evenly split across the electric power, industrial, residential, and commercial sectors.

The past few years have seen a “revolution” in the outlook for natural gas supply. Until recently, experts thought that the United States would become increasingly dependent on expensive imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from overseas, but the recent boom in domestic “unconventional” gas production (driven by shale gas) and the dramatically increased estimate of U.S. gas reserves have led to projections of increasing domestic natural gas production and declining imports.

Natural gas is receiving a lot of attention in the discussion about U.S. climate and energy policy. The gas industry is pressing for favorable treatment in possible climate and energy legislation, with a specific set of policy priorities recently put forth by a major industry lobby group.

While some tout natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a low-carbon future others fear that a “dash for gas” (i.e., fuel switching by electric power generators) could increase demand for and the price of natural gas, thus negatively impacting manufacturers that rely on natural gas for energy and as a feedstock.

Recent analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the climate and energy bill passed by the House in June 2009, illustrates how the projected role of natural gas in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions depends in large part on the use of offsets under cap and trade and the relative cost and commercial availability of low-carbon technologies (e.g., wind, solar, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power). When low-carbon technology deployment and offsets are constrained, EIA finds a much heavier reliance on natural gas for electricity generation under cap and trade, but the new outlook on U.S. natural gas supply means that even this pessimistic scenario does not lead to major increases in projected natural gas prices.

A new modeling analysis from Resources for the Future (RFF) sought to quantify the implications of the dramatically expanded U.S. natural gas supply. RFF researchers found that without new energy and climate policy, more abundant and less expensive natural gas could actually mean slightly higher U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 than would otherwise be the case (as cheaper natural gas competes with non-emitting energy sources and increases total energy consumption).

This last point brings us back to the overarching importance of implementing a policy that puts a price on carbon, as a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program would do. Putting a price on carbon would harness market forces to drive the deployment of a portfolio of low- and lower-carbon technologies and fuels, including increased natural gas use to the extent it can cost-effectively reduce emissions.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow

Smart Grid Boosts Efficiency, Renewables, and Reliability

The smart grid is a hot topic these days. President Obama touted the smart grid during his campaign and continues to be a booster. The 2009 stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA) provided nearly $4.5 billion to the Department of Energy (DOE) for smart grid investments. In October, DOE made $3.4 billion in awards under the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, and, in November, DOE announced awards totaling $620 million as part of the Smart Grid Regional and Energy Storage Demonstration Project.

Last month, we added a smart grid factsheet to its Climate Techbook. While it’s not easy to give a short definition of the smart grid, one can think of it as the application of digital technology to the electric power sector to improve reliability, reduce cost, and increase efficiency. Smart grid technologies—including communication networks, advanced sensors, and monitoring devices—provide new ways for utilities to generate and deliver power and for consumers to understand and control their electricity consumption.

The smart grid has several anticipated benefits unrelated to climate change, such as improving electricity reliability (e.g., fewer power outages) and reducing utilities’ operating costs (e.g., by eliminating meter reading). Much of the buzz around the smart grid, however, has to do with the ways that smart grid technology can facilitate greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Efficiency, renewables, and  plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are three of the primary climate solutions the smart grid can enable. Initial evidence suggests that giving consumers direct feedback on their electricity use via smart meters and associated display devices can by itself lead to energy savings of 5-15 percent. One of the challenges that will become increasingly important as the United States relies more on renewable electricity from wind and solar power is that these resources are variable (i.e., they only generate electricity when the wind blows or the sun shines) rather than schedulable like traditional fossil fuel power plants. Smart grid technology makes it easier to add energy storage to the grid and to exploit demand response (e.g., cycling air conditioners on and off) to more easily balance electricity supply and demand as output from variable renewables fluctuates. Finally, smart grid technology would facilitate charging PHEVs during periods of low electricity demand (when generating costs are lowest and existing capacity is underutilized) so that PHEV charging can be done most cost-effectively.

Achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions at the lowest cost will require deploying a portfolio of energy efficiency measures and low-carbon energy technologies, several of which can build upon smart grid technology.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow