WASHINGTON — The leading American effort to capture carbon dioxide from coal plants has hit a stumbling block that could imperil the project and set back a promising technology for addressing global warming, people involved in the venture said.
Ameren, the Midwestern power company that was to be the host for the project, has told its partners that because of its financial situation, it cannot take part as promised, although it has not told them exactly what it will do. The company had agreed to supply an old oil-fired power plant in Meredosia, Ill., that would be converted to demonstrate the carbon-capture technology on a commercial scale.
Participants in the venture, known as FutureGen 2.0., are to meet next week to work out how they might get access to the old plant, which Ameren recently said it would shut down by the end of the year, and how it might be maintained until the remaining partners are ready to take it over. The people who talked about the project asked not to be identified because FutureGen’s directors had not yet met.
While the other major partners, Babcock & Wilcox and Air Liquide, could seek to buy the plant and convert it without Ameren, time is short. The federal government promised the project $1 billion, or roughly 80 percent of its costs, on the condition that the money be spent by the end of 2015. That’s a tight time frame for developing a technology that has never been used on a commercial scale, the participants said.
A spokesman for Ameren declined to comment on whether it would play any role in the project. In announcing last month that it was closing the plant by the end of the year, the company had said that this did not preclude using it for FutureGen.
It is the latest setback for the program, which was long seen as the nation’s best hope for taking a worldwide lead in developing ways to capture and bury carbon dioxide from coal burning. Globally, coal burning now accounts for roughly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and rising energy demand is only expected to drive up coal consumption, especially in nations with large reserves like China and India.
The project’s first incarnation, announced in 2003 by President George W. Bush, envisaged building a plant that would turn coal into a hydrocarbon gas, filter out the carbon dioxide and burn the hydrogen for power. Bids were solicited, and the venture settled on a site in Mattoon, Ill. But the administration shifted course and killed the program in 2008, citing concerns about the costs.
Last year the Obama administration resuscitated the project with $1 billion in Recovery Act money but settled on a different technology: burning coal in oxygen instead of ordinary air to produce nearly pure carbon dioxide as an exhaust gas that would then be piped underground for disposal.
Word that this effort, too, could be set back frustrated experts in the field, given a general industry consensus that the federal government should be underwriting demonstrations of technologies to limit carbon dioxide emissions so the market can judge which are most practical.
Ernest J. Moniz, a professor of physics at M.I.T. and former under secretary of energy who wrote a pivotal 2007 report calling for the prompt demonstration of carbon capture technologies, said: “It’s only more true four years later — we can’t get one going, but we actually need more than one.”
Another expert, Nick Welch, a consultant on carbon capture projects, said, “If you were really serious about getting on with this stuff, even in the complex democracy that we live in, you might find a way of getting through all this.”
If the project needed a deadline extension from Congress to hold on to the $1 billion in federal aid, many note, it is not clear that it could get one in this fiscally weak environment. And experts on coal-fired emissions say that without government help, it is unlikely that the private sector will risk the money necessary for a first-of-a-kind engineering project.
When the Bush administration unveiled its FutureGen project in 2003, the expectation was that carbon dioxide limits were likely to be imposed by Congress. That never happened, but the Obama administration said recently that it intended to complete a carbon dioxide rule for new power plants by next May.
At the same time, the Obama administration has faced consistent obstacles from Republican critics in pursuing tighter regulatory limits on air pollution.