Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mattoon wins: Too good to be true?

The energy industry selected Mattoon in east Central Illinois to host the more than $1 billion project billed as the “world’s first near-zero-emissions coal-fired power plant,” but the feds have yet to sign on to the project that they’re supposed to fund.

FutureGen, as it’s called, is expected to receive international attention for the first-of-its-kind technology to research a cleaner source of energy while capturing harmful carbon dioxide emissions underground. The hundreds of jobs created would also be a huge economic boon for the region and the state. But the project’s future remained in question Tuesday because the U.S. Department of Energy hadn’t yet issued its final decision, which is necessary. And the department issued a statement saying the project already is over budget. More information won’t be available until next month.

Energy Department officials did not attend the press conference (seen live on the Internet) held in Washington, D.C., by the FutureGen Alliance, a nonprofit group of energy companies that’s in a public-private partnership with the feds. The Alliance announced Mattoon as the winner despite federal wishes to hold off on the announcement.

The Energy Department’s absence speaks volumes considering the government (a.k.a. taxpayers) is slated to foot most of the bill: 74 percent compared to the industry’s 26 percent. A November report includes a section about what would happen if the feds didn’t share the burden. “In the absence of DOE funding (the No-Action Alternative), the Alliance may still elect to construct and operate the proposed power plant if it can obtain the additional funding and required permits. However, in the absence of DOE participation, it is unlikely the FutureGen Project would be implemented.” The report later adds, “The No-Action Alternative is considered a ‘No-Build’ Alternative.” [Emphasis added]

FutureGen Alliance officials said during the press conference that politics did not come into play, but skeptics have wondered from the beginning whether President George W. Bush’s home state of Texas would win the bid. Texas is the other state with two cities on the short list for the FutureGen project. Tuscola in east central Illinois also was in the running but wasn’t selected by the Alliance.

The Alliance board unanimously selected Mattoon, population 18,000, after a rigorous process of comparing more than 100 criteria because the town “offered the best chance of success for this project,” said Lucy Swartz, head of the site selection process. “The site is move-in ready, and that was very important for the Alliance to reduce any risks that might be involved with acquiring the land.” It was also chosen for its secure and adequate water supply, its geology that would allow safe storage of carbon dioxide 8,000 feet underground and its location in 444 acres of rural land with a place to inject the gas emissions. The property tax benefits and community support also helped.

The problem is that costs have risen from an estimated $904 million in 2004 to $1.75 billion in 2007.

Construction on the plant would start in 2009, and it wouldn’t be operational until 2012, but the timeline has adjusted a few times. Once in full swing, the plant would be able to power about 150,000 average homes, according to the Alliance’s site.

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