Controversial FutureGen Carbon Capture Demo Gets a "Rapid Restart"

Development of the public-private “cleaner coal” demo project known as FutureGen has been anything but smooth sailing. Plans for a 275 MW coal-fired power plant equipped with experimental carbon capture technology ran hugely over budget in the early stages, and hit a dead end when the Bush administration pulled funding. Then back in March Energy Secretary Steven Chu came to the rescue and said he wanted to take a “fresh look” at the project and implement a modified version.

Today we have the results of that fresh look: Chu has just announced plans to complete key planning and funding steps for FutureGen by early next year, and ultimately contribute an estimated $1.073 billion to the project (including $1 billion in stimulus funds allocated for carbon capture research).futuregen-concept

According to a release from the Department of Energy this morning, the agency has made a provisional agreement with the FutureGen Alliance — the group of coal and utility companies that had previously partnered with the feds on the project — to pursue five benchmarks between the end of next month and early 2010:

– Rapid restart of preliminary design activities.
– Completion of a site-specific preliminary design and updated cost estimate.
– Expansion of the Alliance sponsorship group.
– Development of a complete funding plan.
– Potential additional subsurface characterization.

According to the FutureGen Alliance web site, the group’s current 12 members had previously expected to contribute a total of nearly $400 million. But today the DOE says anticipates that the FutureGen Alliance will have 20 member companies contributing a total of $400-$600 million, and pursuing “additional non-federal funds needed to build and operate the facility” —  signaling a slightly larger role for the private sector in the revamped FutureGen plan.

The first time around, the Bush administration pulled funding based on flawed cost estimates, according to two congressional reports. They were on the high end, but the project had still ballooned $370 million over budget. For a project of this size with an unproven technology, we wouldn’t be surprised if the estimates are off again — but this time, it looks more likely that the industry will foot the bill for overruns.