Death of a Turkey


DOE’s move to ‘restructure’ FutureGen clears the way for more rational R&D.

DOE’s move to ‘restructure’ FutureGen clears the way for more rational R&D.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2008

When President Bush announced the FutureGen initiative halfway through his first term, industry veterans instinctively understood its purpose. Nominally a public-private partnership to build a “zero-emissions” coal-fired power plant, FutureGen stood as a symbol for the administration’s climate-change strategy. It helped the government argue mandatory carbon constraints were unnecessary, because America will develop more green technology than any other country in the world.

While it was serving this cosmetic purpose, FutureGen also offered hope to coal producers and coal-fired power generators. It embodied Washington’s commitment to coal, and President Bush’s emphatic promise that new technology would make coal compatible with a carbon-constrained world.

Thus, when DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman announced FutureGen’s “restructuring” on January 30, the action came as a painful blow to the coal-power industry.

Given the political purpose of the FutureGen initiative, that blow was more symbolic than it was substantive—at least for anyone outside the FutureGen Alliance. But the symbolism was deeply unsettling to the coal industry, adding official insult to the injuries it has suffered in recent months (see “ Coal’s Black Future ”).

By abandoning the audacious goal of a zero-emissions coal power plant, DOE underscored growing doubts about whether carbon sequestration will ever become an industrial-scale solution. Subsequently, DOE suffered slings and arrows of criticism from left, right and center. Republican Congressman Tim Johnson (Ill.) called the action a slap in the face. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, called it cruel deception.

But looking beyond the symbolism—beyond the hyperbole, the politics and the Bush term of office—DOE’s decision was the most technically rational and fiscally responsible decision it could make. Although a similar decision would have been more timely a few years ago, DOE showed real courage by making the politically difficult choice now, and ending the FutureGen folly before it could turn into a real fiasco.

Picking Losers

In explaining FutureGen’s restructuring, DOE Deputy Secretary Clay Sell argued it was the only way to salvage the technology vision behind FutureGen. “The objectives are critical and that’s why we’re [taking this step],” he said. “We’re giving this project a greater chance of success.”

And in fact DOE’s new approach makes infinitely more sense than did the original FutureGen. Namely it allows the private sector to carry its logical part of the load—building the power plant—and focuses government support on the really uncertain part—carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). While the budget might prove too small to accomplish much, in principle the new approach broadens the technology net to consider many possible projects, using a variety of generation systems.

This is an important departure from the original idea, which put the government squarely in the role of picking technology winners and losers.

At the outset, the FutureGen concept was defined too narrowly. Specifically, it was to be a coal-gasification facility producing hydrogen, both to fuel a combined-cycle power plant and also for sale in the market. No other ideas were invited to the FutureGen party.

This prescriptive approach was no