Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mattoon drops out of FutureGen 2.0

By Jamey Dunn

Mattoon has dropped out of the revamped FutureGen 2.0 carbon capture project, which is intended to trap greenhouse gases from coal-fired electrical generation underground to slow global warming.

Mattoon was chosen in 2007 as the site for a first-of-it-kind “clean coal" power plant, which would sequester its carbon emissions underground and theoretically become a proving ground for a relatively untested technology. But politics and rising construction costs stalled the project, and many in the area had grown skeptical about whether the plant would ever be built.

Their skepticism was confirmed last Thursday, when U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin unveiled a new plan, dubbed FutureGen 2.0, which does not include the plant. Instead, the plan calls for an out-of-commission Ameren plant in Meredosia to be retrofitted for a new technology known as “oxy-burn,” which involves burning coal in pure oxygen. Carbon emissions from that plant would have been pumped through a subterranean pipeline and stored underground in Mattoon.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated about $1 billion for coal research, which many assumed would go toward construction of the Mattoon plant. However, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated the construction costs could be as high as $2.3 billion.

Durbin said that during the time the plan has been on hold, private industry has started to test the technology that would have been studied there. So, he said there was no longer a strong enough justification for a new plant with such a high pricetag.

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.”

The new plan would have constructed a training center on or near the site where the Mattoon plant would have been built. Workers there would learn how to retrofit power plants for “oxy-burn” and build pipelines to transport carbon.

Angela Griffin, president of Coles Together — a county economic development group that has worked closely on the project —said that she first heard of the new plan when Durbin announced it on Thursday. She said an outpouring of public sentiment against the town’s potential involvement in the plan came soon after. The DOE gave Mattoon until Friday as the deadline for a decision.

Griffin sent a letter to Durbin today to inform him that the town would not be a part of the new plan. From the letter:

While I have nothing but the highest level of regard for the time and effort that you and the FutureGen Alliance expended to make this project viable, our challenges with FutureGen 2.0, as proposed by the Department of Energy, are too big to overcome.

I want to emphasize that the concept of carbon capture and sequestration has nothing whatsoever to do with the reasons we have chosen not to pursue what is known as FutureGen 2.0. As a citizenry, we embraced that technology and believe it to be a safe and practical approach to removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The simple fact remains that we agreed to host what was presented as the world’s first near-zero emissions research and demonstration facility – the latest in power generation technology paired with underground storage for the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions. Hosting the original FutureGen was something this community embraced with great pride. Ours would be a distinct and honorable mission in an emerging scientific field. Mattoon was to be a focal point for smart, forward-looking solutions in a carbon constrained world.

Unfortunately, our role in FutureGen 2.0 does not support that effort. If FutureGen 2.0 moves ahead with the revised structure described today, it must be without Coles County.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, said that the people of the area have been disappointed by developments in the project before, so they are suspicious of the new proposal. “What [the DOE and Durbin] underestimated is that the local officials and their constituents, they have a memory.”

Righter said that promises of potential benefits to the area, such as job creation and the construction of training facility, seemed to be shaky, and residents were concerned that they would not pan out.

He said he would have preferred to have a public hearing on the issue, but the accelerated timeline and lack on a detailed plan made it difficult to bring the issue directly to the people of the area. “A public hearing means that you present what you know, and then you get the public’s input on it. It was tough to know what is real and what was fiction.”

However, Griffin said that no matter how much explanation was given, the town would not have signed on. “Not in this format. Time would not have changed the decision here. This project is not right for this community. … There is a feeling of betrayal, I think, from the residents. They had sacrificed a lot to partner on this project, and we felt we weren’t being taken seriously as a partner.”

Durbin said in a written statement that the plan will move ahead without Mattoon: “This week, I will ask the Department of Energy to solicit other Illinois communities to take on the role envisioned for Mattoon. Both my office and the Department of Energy have heard from a number of communities throughout the state expressing their interest. I wish cost overruns, project delays and rapid advances in science in other parts of the country had not necessitated a change in the FutureGen project. But we must face reality.”

Tuscola officials have voiced interest in taking Mattoon's place in the project. Tuscola was a runner-up for the original FutureGen plant.

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