Thursday, March 12, 2009

House Science Subcommittee Examines "Advance Coal Programs"

Mar 11: The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Chaired by Brian Baird (D-WA), held a hearing to examine FutureGen and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) advanced coal programs. Subcommittee Members heard testimony on near-term and long-term strategies to accelerate research, development and demonstration of advanced technologies to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

At the hearing Members discussed a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report comparing the DOE’s past efforts to where they are now to determine the best path to take moving forward. According to a Committee release, it is well understood that the burning of fossil fuels significantly contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Approximately 50 percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal and 41 percent of the electricity produced worldwide comes from coal. China is the world’s largest coal user, accounting for 63 percent of the country’s total primary energy supply.

Subcommittee Chairman Baird, said, “We burn a lot of coal in this country and around the world. The United States is one of the largest consumers of coal and this is one of the major reasons we are one of the largest emitters of gases that lead to lethal warming and acidification of our oceans. But we are not the only country with strong dependence on coal. China and India have both expanded their coal use, and in 2007 China surpassed us to become the largest contributor to global CO2 emissions. I do not say this to point fingers, but to point out that climate change truly is a global problem, and we must work with other developed nations and developing economies to find solutions to this staggering problem.”

It was noted that the DOE manages several programs -- such as the Clean Coal Power Initiative, FutureGen, Innovations from Existing Plants Programs, Advanced Turbines Program, Advanced Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle Program, Carbon Sequestration Regional Partnership -- designed to research and develop new technologies to help reduce GHG emissions from our nation’s coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources while also maximizing performances and minimizing costs.

In 2003, the DOE’s FutureGen initiative was announced by the Bush Administration as the first zero-emissions, coal-fired electricity-generating plant that would also test advanced coal technologies. Under the FutureGen program, DOE would oversee a consortium of industrial interests and international partners that would manage the construction of a $1 billion next-generation integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant to produce electricity and hydrogen. In January of 2008, the DOE announced a major restructuring of the FutureGen program which eliminated the hydrogen production and the living laboratory of components of the original program and left our international partners unsure of their involvement with the initiative. Since the announcement of the restructuring of FutureGen, the DOE has received many proposals to review. Recently, Secretary Steven Chu testified that he would support the original FutureGen plant with “some modifications.”

In February 2008, the Science Committee asked GAO to investigate the Bush Administration’s decision to pull their support for FutureGen -- a project intended to demonstrate the next generation of coal-fired power production and once the centerpiece of the Department of Energy’s(DOE) program on clean coal technology [See WIMS 2/19/08]. At the hearing, GAO released a 53-page report entitled, Clean Coal: DOE's Decision to Restructure FutureGen Should Be Based on a Comprehensive Analysis of Costs, Benefits, and Risks (GAO-09-248, February 13, 2009). GAO also released a 9-page testimony delivered to the Subcommittee entitled, Clean Coal: DOE Should Prepare a Comprehensive Analysis of the Relative Costs, Benefits, and Risks of a Range of Options for FutureGen (GAO-09-465T, March 11, 2009.

GAO testified that the original FutureGen plant was to capture and store underground about 90 percent of its CO2 emissions. DOE’s cost share was to be 74 percent, and industry partners agreed to fund the rest. Concerned about escalating costs, DOE announced in January 2008 that it had decided to restructure FutureGen. In October 2008, DOE received a small number of applications for the restructured FutureGen; however, some of these applications were for proposals outside the restructured FutureGen’s scope. DOE is currently assessing proposals received and stated it expected to announce a selection of projects by December 2008; however, as of the beginning of March 2009, it had made no decision.

DOE requested supplemental information from restructured FutureGen applicants, which will be reviewed before any selection decision. GAO indicated, "As you know, the recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known as the stimulus law, provides DOE an additional $3.4 billion for 'Fossil Energy Research and Development'. Such a substantial amount of funding could significantly impact DOE’s decisions about how to move forward with programs such as FutureGen."

GAO concluded, "Given the magnitude of the current fiscal and economic challenges facing our nation, along with the urgent need to secure an adequate and sustainable energy supply that does not contribute to climate change, much rides on the success of clean coal programs, such as FutureGen. To ensure the best uses of billions of federal dollars, informed and thoughtful approaches should be taken when making decisions about these programs, including the restructuring of FutureGen." GAO indicated that its February 2009 report recommended that DOE conduct a comprehensive analysis of different options.

In its February report, GAO concludes, ". . .in its decision, DOE [the Bush DOE] compared two cost estimates for the original FutureGen that were not comparable because DOE’s $950 million estimate was in constant 2004 dollars and the $1.8 billion estimate of DOE’s industry partners was inflated through 2017. As its restructuring decision did not consider a comprehensive analysis of costs, benefits, and risks, DOE has no assurance that the restructured FutureGen is the best option to advance CCS."

Senior Committee Member Jerry Costello (D-IL), where the original FutureGen project was to be located said, “These reports make clear the decision by President Bush and Secretary Bodman was not supported by the facts. The result is we lost at least a year and a half and perhaps more time to develop carbon capture and sequestration technologies. President Bush took what could have been a tremendous bipartisan achievement with real impact on global climate change and made it yet another poor decision.”

Full Committee Chair, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) said, "It is extremely unfortunate that the previous Administration used ‘bad math’ to restructure a major climate-change initiative. The end result has been lost time to develop carbon capture storage (CCS) technologies and increased skepticism from around the globe about our commitment to demonstrate CCS."

Representative Baird said, “I think the United States should take the lead in reducing energy consumption and particularly consumption of fossil fuels. We have a variety of tools at our disposal to accomplish that goal. We can develop and deploy advanced, green technologies, adopt better conservation practices and energy efficiency policies, and as individuals, behave more responsibly. Without bold policies and public and personal commitment, we run the risk of serious damage to our environment and our society. That outcome is simply unacceptable. It is my sincere hope and expectation that we can devise a strategy forward that achieves remarkable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in a safe, responsible and sustainable manner.”

Access the Committee release on the hearing (click here). Access the hearing website with links to testimony, the GAO report, a staff report, the hearing charter, and extensive background information (click here).