In early 2003 the United States announced its plans to build a zero-emission prototype of the fossil fuel power plant of the future called FutureGen. It is one of the boldest steps toward a pollution-free energy future ever taken by the U.S. It has the potential to be one of the most important advances in energy production in the first half of this century.

FutureGen schematic. Source: U.S. DOE

The significance of FutureGen’s success is that a path forward can be established for removing all of the environmental concerns and challenges associated with the use of coal, including greenhouse gas emissions. FutureGen is a technology-based climate change – mitigation strategy for coal.

As the world continues its reliance on fossil fuels to meet its growing energy demand, the associated environmental and climate change challenges must be adequately addressed. Today, the electricity and transportation sectors are responsible for nearly three-fourths of U.S. anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental challenges and concerns over climate change with respect to the use of fossil fuels are being addressed through extensive research to produce clean energy options, especially for coal. These environmental issues drive the research to find economically viable solutions aimed at removing all environmental concerns associated with the use of coal.

In that context, the U.S. is embarking on a future generation of coal plants based on the revolutionary concept of "zero emissions." The research toward this goal culminates in a project called FutureGen. Building on prior and ongoing clean coal research, FutureGen will be the world’s first fully integrated coal-fired power plant that simultaneously produces hydrogen and electricity while sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2).

FutureGen encompasses three important pathways to climate change mitigation: high efficiency, low- or no-carbon fuels, and CO2 sequestration. As a full-scale research facility, its aim is to prove the technical feasibility and potential economic viability of the zero-emission technology option for coal. Its success would lead to future commercial demonstrations and replication for the marketplace and address global climate change concerns over carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

In the future, zero-emission plants could become a model for the production of coal-based hydrogen with zero emissions to power a new fleet of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks. All of these goals are achievable as a technological solution to retaining the use of coal in our future energy mix.

FutureGen Project

FutureGen will be a cost-shared $1 billion (estimated) venture that will produce electricity and hydrogen fuel while virtually eliminating emissions of such air pollutants as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, mercury, and CO2 — a greenhouse gas.

The Department of Energy envisions that FutureGen would be sized to generate the equivalent of approximately 275 MW of electricity, roughly equal to the output of an average midsize U.S. coal-fired power plant. Through a process known as gasification, solid coal will be converted into a hydrogen-rich gas, rather than burned directly. The hydrogen will then be combusted cleanly in a turbine or used in a fuel cell to produce clean electricity. It could also be used to make high-value chemicals and products.

Integration is a key feature necessary to prove technical operational viability to the conservative coal and utility industries. Integration issues between interdependent subsystems such as the gasification and power and hydrogen production systems and the carbon separation and sequestration systems can only be addressed by a large-scale integrated facility operation.

A large-scale integrated facility will provide the data upon which follow-on commercial demonstration can be based. Integration is necessary because the logistics involved in producing hydrogen and electricity from coal and sequestering carbon dioxide at the same site and moving the electricity and hydrogen to consumers must be projected to be cost competitive.

FutureGen’s integration with carbon sequestration is one of the primary features that will set the FutureGen plant apart from other coal-based power projects. Carbon dioxide will be separated from the coal and captured at the plant for permanent disposal/storage. The captured CO2 will be placed deep underground rather than released into the atmosphere.

It may also be possible to inject the CO2 into the salt water reservoirs that lay thousands of feet below the surface of much of the U.S. These could include oil or gas reservoirs, un-mine-able coal seams or volcanic basalt formations. Once trapped in these stable formations, the greenhouse gas would be permanently isolated from the atmosphere. No other plant in the world has been built with this capability.

The FutureGen plant will pioneer geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide on a scale that will help determine whether it is a viable and affordable approach for 21st-century carbon management. The U.S. DOE intends to work with the appropriate domestic and international communities to establish standardized technologies and protocols for CO2 measuring, monitoring, and verification. The project will seek to sequester CO2 emissions at an operating rate of one million metric tons or more of CO2 per year in order to conduct the testing and validation at an adequate scale.

U.S. is Partnering with Industry

In order to complete this ambitious project, the DOE has signed a cooperative agreement with a nonprofit organization, the FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc. (the Alliance), to design, construct, and operate the FutureGen facility. Because integration of systems is necessary to prove FutureGen’s technical operational viability to the coal and utility industries, it is important that these end users become comfortable with the workings of a zero-emission plant.

The FutureGen plant will employ cutting-edge technologies that have never been operated together at significant scale and will provide the opportunity for them to test the feasibility of a zero-emission option.

Currently, the Alliance consists of 10 organizations: American Electric Power, CONSOL Energy Inc., Kennecott Energy Company, BHP Billiton, Anglo American, Peabody Energy, Foundation Coal Holdings, Southern Company, China Huaneng Group, and PPL (formerly Pennsylvania Power & Light).

The Alliance is an open consortium (both domestically and internationally) and is geographically diverse, including producers and users of a full range of coal types. In addition to foreign investments, the companies of the Alliance collectively control over 15% of U.S. coal-fired electricity generation and over 40% of U.S. coal production.

Foreign Governments Invited to Participate

The ultimate goal for the prototype zero-emission plant is to show how new technology can eliminate environmental concerns over the future use of coal. This will allow the U.S. and other countries to realize the full potential of the world’s abundant coal resources to meet their energy needs.

In order to maximize the benefit of zero-emission coal plants, it is necessary for FutureGen plants to be replicated worldwide once the concept is proven to be safe, reliable, and affordable. Thus, it is essential to encourage foreign governmental participation in a way that other coal-consuming and coal-producing nations have a vested interest.

Foreign governments may participate in FutureGen through their membership on the FutureGen Government Steering Committee (GSC). In addition to the experience gained by foreign governments, each country will participate in meetings of the GSC, the main external committee advising the Alliance on the project.

To participate, foreign governments are asked to invest as a cost-sharing partner with the U.S. over a five-year period. On April 3, 2006, India signed a Framework Protocol Agreement to become the first member of the FutureGen GSC, and South Korea has expressed its intention to join formally as well. Discussions with other interested countries are continuing.

Participation in FutureGen promotes a government’s capability to be a leader in climate change – mitigation and coal sustainability. Participating governments will gain insights into and understanding of how a zero-emission plant works as well as the rationale behind design and operation decisions. Participants will get information and reports that can be translated and dispersed for use within their public domain.

The cooperation and support of many domestic and international stakeholders (government, industry, and environmental) will be needed for FutureGen to be successful and accepted. Broad involvement in the project is desired to achieve wide acceptance of the concept of coal-based systems integrated with CO2 sequestration technology.

Potential Coal-Related Benefits

FutureGen is built on the technological foundation of more than 30 years of successful research and progress on developing clean coal technologies. The project will stretch these technologies to the cutting edge to achieve zero emissions.

To the general public, it is not readily apparent nor widely known how far clean coal technologies have come in reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants nor how far advances can go over the next few years.

Largely because of advanced pollution control technologies, the U.S. has been able to use more coal while simultaneously improving air quality. In fact, annual coal use for electric generation has nearly tripled since 1970, from 320 million tons in 1970 to more than 900 million tons in 2000. At the same time sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from coal combustion have decreased from 4.4 pounds SO2 /mmBtu to only 1.0 pound SO2 /mmBtu. Likewise, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions decreased from 0.95 pounds NOx /mmBtu to just 0.44 pound NOx /mmBtu. These numbers represent reductions of 77% and 54%, respectively. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that particulates from U.S. coal-fired plants declined some 60% over the same period.

The ability to meet today’s U.S. regulatory emission limits, and the cost of that compliance, has been greatly improved. For example, in the 1970s most options for significantly reducing smog-forming NOx pollutant emissions were untried and expensive. In some cases the technology options cost as much as $3,000 per ton of pollutant removed. Today, retrofitted low-NOx burners have dramatically come down in cost by a factor of 20. Similarly, the costs of flue gas desulfurization units, or scrubbers, have dropped dramatically while their reliability has greatly improved.

New U.S. government-industry collaborative efforts will continue to find ways to improve our ability to limit emissions from coal-fired power generation at lower costs. The goal for future power plant designs is to both increase efficiency and fully address environmental issues by developing coal-based zero-emission power plants. Moreover, the focus is on designs that are compatible with carbon sequestration technology. This is what FutureGen will provide in terms of reaching an affordable near-zero-emission coal option.

2. FutureGen timeline. Source: U.S. DOE

FutureGen Goals

FutureGen will establish the technical and economic feasibility of producing electricity and hydrogen from coal while capturing and sequestering the CO2 generated in the process. The project will employ advanced coal gasification technology integrated with combined-cycle electricity generation and the sequestration of CO2 emissions.

The project will be supported by DOE’s ongoing coal research program, which will also be the principal source of technology for the prototype. FutureGen will be a 10-year effort and will be led by the industrial consortium representing the coal and power industries. Results from the project will be shared among all participants and industry as a whole.

A major FutureGen goal is to conclusively show that using coal to produce electricity and hydrogen with zero or near-zero carbon emissions is a technically and economically viable approach to carbon management. To prove its viability, the sequestration technology needs to be validated at a meaningful scale under real-world conditions. However, this will require the operation of a large-scale prototype that uses cutting-edge technologies to produce electricity and hydrogen and that is integrated with CO2 sequestration technologies.

Specific goals are to:

  • Prove the technical feasibility. It is important to show that cutting-edge technologies can be scaled up and integrated in a fashion that results in a system that operates and functions reliably and safely.

  • Prove the economic viability. Data generated by the plant need to show that electricity and hydrogen fuel can be produced from coal (with zero emissions) in an economically feasible way.

  • Gain acceptance. FutureGen will encourage the acceptance of the concept of coal-based systems with near-zero emissions by the coal and electricity industries, environmental community, general public, and international community.

These goals are made achievable by the advances in clean coal technology and the technology database that has been developed over the past 30 years through the combined efforts of the U.S. government and industry. An industrial base now exists for several critical FutureGen components, such as gasifiers, clean-up trains, and turbines. However, their cost and performance levels will have to be advanced.

FutureGen may consider incorporating a higher-performance, flexible gasifier, such as the transport reactor now at an advanced development stage. Though gas stream clean-up trains have successfully operated at commercial scale, there are only two such systems operating in the U.S. in an integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plant. These clean-up systems are also not removing pollutants to the near-zero levels required for FutureGen.

Although turbine technology is commercially mature, there are no turbines available today that are capable of running on syngas or hydrogen that can reach the performance levels required for FutureGen. Finally, none of the currently operating IGCCs have integrated carbon capture and sequestration capability. Ongoing sequestration R&D effort will provide key data to support the FutureGen project. However, it is critical to establish the capability to sequester carbon in a cost-competitive integrated system, which is a key FutureGen goal.

Furthermore, technologies that could be future candidates for testing at the prototype plant could push electric power generating efficiencies to 60% or higher (not including the sequestration offset). That would be nearly double the efficiencies of today’s conventional coal-burning plants. Thus, the FutureGen prototype plant would be a stepping stone toward commercial coal-fired power plants that not only would be emission-free but also would operate at unprecedented fuel efficiencies.

For these reasons, the focal point of the project is a prototype power plant that pushes the envelope of the technology advances. The key objectives for the prototype include:

  • Designing, constructing, and operating a nominal 275-MW (net equivalent output) prototype plant that produces electricity and hydrogen with near-zero emissions. This size of prototype is driven by the requirement to produce commercially relevant data. Size is also driven by the requirement to produce CO2 at the operating rate of one million metric tons per year to adequately validate the integrated operation of the gasification plant and the receiving geologic formation.

  • Validating the engineering, economic, and environmental viability of coal-based, near – zero emissions technologies that by 2020 will produce electricity with less than a 10% increase in cost compared with nonsequestered systems and produce hydrogen at $6.00 per mmBtu wholesale price.

  • Verifying sustained operation of a gasification plant integrated with carbon storage.

  • Confirming the engineering, economic, and environmental viability of oxygen separation, hydrogen separation, gas cleaning, high-efficiency, coal-based turbines and fuel cells.

  • Improving the efficiency of technology development by creating a common platform for the large-scale testing and evaluation of emerging capture and sequestration technologies.

  • Initially sequestering 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions and eventually sequestering up to 100%.

  • Establishing standardized technologies and protocols for CO2 measuring, monitoring, and verification in order to confirm that carbon sequestration is a safe process and that sequestered CO2 will remain underground for long periods of time without significant leakage.

A Step Forward

FutureGen is a key step toward achieving the goal of zero emissions and the high-priority centerpiece of the DOE’s Coal and Power Systems program, which drives coal research, development, and demonstration efforts. Coal is cheap domestically and is one of the most abundant energy sources available in the U.S. The success of FutureGen will provide a technology-based climate change – mitigation strategy for coal.

Yet, the greatest benefits will only be obtained if zero-emission technologies are accepted and replicated worldwide. That is why global acceptance of the concept of coal-based systems integrated with sequestration technology is one of FutureGen’s key goals.

Economic prosperity and quality of life depend on low-cost energy in a world of increasing population. An affordable and feasible zero-emission coal-based energy system is vital to the continued use of coal to meet the world’s energy needs while eliminating all environmental concerns over its use.

In the future, the world will use all forms of clean energy to meet its needs. The success of FutureGen will ensure that the U.S. can continue to utilize coal in a way that is both environmentally secure and economically viable.