The goals of the $1 billion FutureGen initiative are ambitious and the schedule aggressive. PEi looks at the progress of a project that will integrate the world’s most advanced gasification, power and carbon capture technologies.

Siân Green

In 2003, the USA announced that it would build the world’s first ‘zero-emissions’ coal fired power plant under a $1 billion project known as FutureGen. By 2012 the plant, which will feature an advanced gasification and power generation system together with carbon capture and storage facilities, will be operational.

Under this aggressive schedule, the project partners envisage site selection to be made by the end of 2007 and construction starting in 2010. Current key activities are focused on engineering design work, completing an environmental impact assessment, and selecting a site.

In March 2006 the FutureGen Industrial Alliance – a coalition of nine electric utilities and coal companies charged with developing the project alongside the US Department of Energy – issued a Request For Proposals inviting interested parties to submit proposals for hosting the project. The Alliance has received 22 proposals for sites in nine US states and aims to draw up a shortlist of six sites by July 2006.

“The large number of notices of intent received is not surprising based on the importance that the project has regarding the future of coal and the interest expressed by many stakeholders in this very important project,” said Alliance CEO Mike Mudd.


Figure 1. The FutureGen project is the US government’s vision of energy supply
Click here to enlarge image

FutureGen is important on several different levels. It will draw together several different areas of scientific research, and will help the US to achieve a number of energy policy related goals, including the development of a hydrogen economy, addressing climate change, and ensuring the future of the country’s coal industry. Coal represents more than 85 per cent of US energy reserves and accounts for over 50 per cent of electricity generation in the country.

Central to FutureGen’s goals is the demonstration of technology that will eliminate the environmental impact of coal fired electricity generation, thus ensuring the diversity of the generating mix and security of supply. The project will also support President Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, which aims to create a hydrogen economy for transport. In addition, the project aims to prove the feasibility of large-scale carbon capture and storage.

The international perspective

The DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has estimated the total cost of the FutureGen project to be $952 million (in 2005 dollars). Of this, the DOE will provide $500 million in direct funding and $120 million from the DOE sequestration programme. The FutureGen Alliance is expected to account for $250 million, while the project partners hope that international partners will contribute $80 million.

The US is actively encouraging international participation in FutureGen in order to maximize the global applicability and acceptance of the project’s results, and to help build an international consensus on the role of coal and sequestration as a means of combating climate change. The FutureGen Industrial Alliance includes a number of non-US companies, including BHP Billiton and Kennecott Energy Company. China Huaneng Group – China’s largest coal-fuelled power generator – joined the Alliance in October 2005. China has the world’s third-largest coal reserve base and uses coal to generate about 70 per cent of its electricity. The country is the world’s largest coal consumer.

The US government has invited members of the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) to join the project. In response to this, in April 2006, India signed an agreement to join the FutureGen government steering committee. The agreement follows the creation of a US-India Energy Dialogue in May 2005, which aims to increase trade and investment between the two countries in the energy sector. Under the FutureGen agreement, India will contribute $10 million to the project, and Indian companies are also expected to participate in the private sector segment.

Technology goals

At the heart of the FutureGen initiative are plans to design, construct and operate the world’s first coal gasification based electricity and hydrogen generation plant that is nearly emissions-free. In addition to generating electricity and hydrogen, the nominal 275 MW prototype plant will also provide a large-scale engineering laboratory for testing new clean power, CO2 capture, and coal-to-hydrogen technologies. It will also include a test bed for the development of new technologies.

The plant will employ advanced gasification, electricity generation, emissions control, CO2 capture and storage, and hydrogen technologies. While these technologies exist today in various states of development, they have yet to be integrated and tested at a single plant. The DOE expects that the technologies developed through FutureGen will ultimately give rise to power plants that generate electricity with less than a ten per cent increase in cost compared to those that do not use CO2 capture technology.


Figure 2. FutureGen is to be undertaken on an aggressive project schedule
Click here to enlarge image

The plant will use an advanced gasifier to convert coal into a synthesis gas consisting mostly of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The synthesis gas will then react with steam to produce additional hydrogen and a concentrated stream of CO2. These products will then be separated, with the hydrogen being used to power a gas turbine combined cycle plant or a fuel cell to produce electricity. It could also be used as a feedstock for chemical plants. The CO2 from the process will be sequestered in deep underground geologic formations such as saline formations, unmineable coal seams, or depleted oil and gas formations.

The project aims to produce approximately 1 million tonnes/year of CO2 in order to prove the viability of CO2 sequestration at a meaningfully large scale. Initially, the plant will capture 90 per cent of CO2 produced and the reservoir will be closely monitored for surface leakage. Other emissions targets for the plant include:

  • > 99 per cent sulphur removal
  • < 0.05 lb/million BTU NOx emissions
  • < 0.005lb/million BTU particulate matter emissions
  • > 90 per cent mercury removal.

The highly ambitious nature of the project is revealed when the technology to be used in the FutureGen is considered: virtually all the major elements of the plant (gasifier, turbine, CO2 capture technology etc.) require significant further development and testing before they can be deployed for demonstration.

For example, the transport gasifier is one of several promising technology options for FutureGen, and has been successfully demonstrated in air-blown mode. However, it needs to be developed for oxygen-blown operation, and while progress is being made under several projects, it is still in the early stages.

The gas turbine for the project is also another area for development. A number of turbines currently operate on synthesis gas at several IGCC plants around the world, but the levels of hydrogen in the gas rarely exceeds 40 per cent. Limited testing has indicated that 100 per cent hydrogen can be fired in gas turbines, but a number of technical issues must be addressed, including hydrogen embrittlement of materials, premix flame flashback, hot section material degradation and NOx control.

Future focus

In addition to determining the technology and configuration of the plant, the DOE and Alliance members are now focusing on site selection. The host site is to be determined by an open competitive process, with candidate sites assessed on the grounds of a set of technical, environmental, regulatory and financial criteria. The criteria includes those typically considered when siting power plants, as well as requirements that are unique to FutureGen, such as the suitability of the site geology for permanent CO2 storage.

Once the Alliance has determined a shortlist of sites, the DOE will undertake the National Environmental Policy Act review process to determine which sites are acceptable from an environmental impact perspective. These sites will be identified in mid-2007, and the Alliance aims to choose the final project site in autumn 2007.


FutureGen Industrial Alliance

The FutureGen Industrial Alliance is a non-profit consortium of some of the world’s largest coal producers and users. It was formed in July 2005 to partner the US Department of Energy (DOE) to facilitate the design, construction and operation of the FutureGen plant. Between them, the members will fund $250 million of the project.

The founding members of the Alliance are: American Electric Power, BHP Billiton, Battelle, Consol Energy Inc., Foundation Coal, Peabody Energy, Kennecott Energy Company, and Southern Company. The five coal companies in the Alliance produce over 40 per cent of the coal mined in the USA, while utility members AEP and Southern Company are the country’s two largest electric utilities, owning more than 15 per cent of US coal fired generation capacity. Battelle is a not-for-profit research and development company and is coordinating the Alliance.

The Alliance has an open membership policy to encourage the addition of other coal and utility companies and since its creation, its membership has grown with the addition of the China Huaneng Group and Anglo American, a mining company with interests in platinum, gold, diamonds, coal, ferrous metals, industrial minerals and paper and packaging.

In December 2005, the Alliance announced that it had signed an agreement with the DOE to develop and site the FutureGen project and was aiming for an aggressive schedule. By February 2006 the Alliance had launched the site selection process, aiming to develop a list of candidate sites by mid-2006.