As our planet warms up, so too does the race towards a zero emissions coal fired plant and a ‘hydrogen economy’. In February, two announcements in the US prove that both industry and government are more than prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

Initial Requests for Proposal (RFPs) were issued by the US Department of Energy (DOE) for the states that are competing to host the demonstration of the world’s first “zero-emissions” coal fired power plant. FutureGen is a $1 billion private-public partnership between the US DOE and a consortium of private companies. It will be the first coal fired plant of its kind. Primarily, it will be designed to capture and store CO2 but will also employ technologies to nearly eliminate sulphur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions. Importantly, it will also allow for the production of hydrogen which could be used to drive turbines or an advanced generation of vehicles.

Some 14 states have expressed their interest in hosting the prototype plant. One news release described the competition as fierce and said that siting the project was like winning the right to host the Olympics. I would not go that far but it is hugely important. Siting and building a power plant is a major undertaking that requires design, permitting and construction. The development schedule includes announcing a site selection process in early 2006, beginning construction within three years, and initiating full-scale plant operations in 2012. Currently, the major activities include selecting a site, completing an environmental impact assessment, and conducting engineering design work.

FutureGen is a key part of the US government’s plans to reduce dependency on imports by making better use of its domestic resources. President Bush has committed $2 billion to clean coal research over ten years. In its budget request of $649 million for 2007, the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy budget allocates $281 million for the President’s Coal Research Initiative. This includes $54 million for FutureGen and $74 million for carbon sequestration. The $54 million budget is triple the amount from 2006.

Such significant financial backing from the government demonstrates the importance the government puts on developing coal. Securing reliable energy sources is no doubt the key driver behind FutureGen. The promise of zero emissions and combating global warming is perhaps a secondary goal but let’s not be critical of what the main driver should be. What is important, is that major players are getting behind the technology.

Also in February, BP and Edison Mission Group (EMG), a subsidiary of Edison International, announced that they were planning a new $1 billion hydrogen fuelled power plant in California. This first-of-a-kind plant would be located next to BP’s Carson refinery, about 30 km south of Los Angeles. BP and EMG are hoping to complete detailed engineering and commercial studies of the 500 MW plant this year, finalize project investment decisions in 2008 and bring the new power plant on line by 2011.

The proposed project would take petroleum coke produced at California refineries, convert it to hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and capture and separate about 90 per cent of the CO2. The hydrogen gas stream would be used to fuel a gas turbine. The captured CO2 would be transported by pipeline to an oilfield and injected into reservoir rock formations thousands of feet underground to stimulate additional oil production and permanently trap the CO2.

In addition to providing power to a state that is predicted to face possible power shortages during the coming years, the plant will eliminate four million tonnes of CO2 per year from the atmosphere. BP is in discussions with Occidental Petroleum to develop options for sequestering the CO2 in Occidental’s California oilfields. Final project investment decisions will be taken after further study by the partners, and review by the California Energy Commission and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. BP and EMG are beginning project discussions with state and federal government agencies and stakeholders and are exploring options for selling power from the plant.

At $1 billion for 500 MW, the plant is far from cheap. At a capital cost of $2000/kW, such a plant could only ever be economically feasible in a scenario where fuel is free e.g. refinery byproducts. Still, it is important for industry and governments to see beyond the dollars in order to put make the hydrogen economy a reality.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, speaking at the project announcement in Carson said: “I want to thank you for choosing California. This will be the first plant of its kind in the whole country and I think it is a perfect fit for our state. With our Strategic Growth Plan, a commitment to air quality, and innovative projects like this hydrogen plant, I know we can have clear skies…”

Well Arnie, I’m off to Trinidad – the hottest spot on the planet for Carnival – to find sand, sea and … clear skies of course. But don’t worry … I’ll be back.

Junior Isles
Publisher & Editorial Director