Clean Coal Fight Gets Dirty


"The DOE's sudden switches undercut U.S. credibility overseas."

The politics of clean coal keep preventing the U.S. government from actually finishing a clean coal project. Last week, the DOE added a new twist to the on-again-off-again clean coal project FutureGen, and it probably didn't have much to do with technology.

"Being the flagship DOE project tends to slow things down considerably because politics tend to get in the way," says John Thompson, the director of the Coal Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit working on clean coal programs.

In lieu of gasification, the revised project calls for a different kind of technology—oxy-combustion. Oxy-combustion burns coal with pure oxygen instead of air, which contains other elements and compounds. Burning coal with oxygen generates a form of carbon dioxide that's easier to capture.

The government should be investing in oxy-combustion, according to Thompson—just not this way for this project. "What is sort of surprising to me about the change is that they're putting so much money into a technology that has only been done at such a small scale," says Thompson.

According to government studies, oxy-combustion is cheaper. But Thompson says it's also the least-developed technology for capturing carbon emissions from coal, and there's no way of knowing the true cost for a large-scale project. Instead of scrapping the gasification plan already in process, which received a little over $1B in DOE funding last year, the government should fund demonstrations of oxy-combustion technology at lower-output plants before scaling up to a project of this size.

in the global clean energy community, these kinds of about-faces can quickly wear out other countries and investors seeking to emulate or partner with the U.S. on investments, technology and long term planning. "When the DOE makes these sudden switches, it undercuts it our credibility overseas," says Thompson.

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