Analysis of Clean Coal

FutureGen Goes Up in Smoke... and Clean Coal Technologies Fail Again

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted February 5, 2008

So it looks like the President's centerpiece for his strategy for Clean Coal technologies, FutureGen, has been shelved.

The reason? 

The project costs for the planned 275MW coal-fired plant had risen to $1.8 billion. And folks, that's just to build it. That doesn't even include the cost of the very resource it depends on to operate--coal.

If they were truly seeking cleaner energy, they could've just as easily pulled off a concentrating solar farm, delivering the same 275MW for roughly the same price.

Of course, that's just construction.

Once a concentrating solar power plant is built, the resource--the sun's rays--is inexhaustible, and free.


Well, figuring conservatively, we probably have about 30 years of that high-energy content coal left. (Learn more about peak coal.) And the FutureGen Alliance estimated the plant would use up to 1 million tons per year.

At a cost of $34.26 per ton (per the EIA's 2006 figures), you're looking at $34.26 million a year, or about $685 million over the course of 20 years (the average life most power plants, both renewable and non-renewable are given as a base measurement), assuming no price increase over the next two decades...which is not a safe assumption to make.

So now we're looking at a choice between $1.8 billion for the concentrating solar project, or almost $2.5 billion for the FutureGen project.

But wait... there's more!

Cost: Clean Coal's Dirty Secret

The cost to transport heat from the sun is roughly $0.00 per year. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself). The cost to transport coal?

Since rail carries the majority of coal tonnage in the U.S., we'll look at the costs attributed to rail transport. According to the EIA, the average cost in 2005 was $11.68 per ton.

Multiply that by 1 million, and you're looking at about $11.68 million a year, or about $233.6 million over the course of 20 years.

This brings our total to roughly $2.719 billion for the "clean coal" plant. The price for the "always clean, never been dirty" 275MW concentrating solar plant is still about $1.8 billion-or about $919 million cheaper.

For that extra $919 million, you can build another 256MW concentrating solar power plant. Not a bad deal.

Clean Coal... Not So Clean After All

Consider the fact that even with a coal plant that doesn't emit CO2, such as the FutureGen Alliance claimed its plant would do, you still have the issues of mercury, sulfur dioxide emissions, and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Granted, the FutureGen Alliance claimed results that would lower emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. But by how much? Well, that's a piece of information we couldn't seem to get a straight answer on.

Either way, it's more than solar, wind or geothermal.

Now I'm not spouting off about this just because I'm unwilling to accept any type of power generation that pollutes as much as coal (complacency cannot be accepted, nor should it be tolerated with so much clean energy technology at our fingertips), but rather to draw your attention to an issue that will continue to be a major thorn in the side of those that champion coal-fired power generation.

Perhaps you remember last year when the American Electric Power company agreed to a $4.6 billion settlement over pollution controls. They now have to shell out a wad of cash to make improvements that will reduce--not eliminate--the plant's sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Just one more thing to consider when analyzing the future growth prospects of both proven renewable energy technologies and unproven non-renewable technologies.

Coal ain't clean folks...even if they put the two words together on a press release.

And until they can prove it, just like the solar, wind and geothermal industries have proven their technologies to be effective and competitive on a level playing field, our skepticism will remain strong. As it should be when it comes to any investment.

And as a side note, Citigroup, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley all announced on Monday they will now set environmental standards that factor in risks posed by carbon-emissions when lending to power companies that seek to build coal-fire power plants.

And another nail is hammered in. Invest appropriately.

To a new way of life, and a new generation of wealth...

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