New Plant Strives to Generate Cleaner Coal Electricity


Carbon sequestration will be used in this new coal-fired power plant to reduce the carbon footprint of electricity.

The town of Mattoon, Illinois rejoiced when the developers of a $1.8 billion low-pollution power plant announced the selected location. This rust-belt town will no longer be primarily known as the bagel capital of the world. The 275-megawatt prototype plant will generate both electricity and hydrogen. Carbon dioxide emissions will be captured and pumped deep into the ground.

The Department of Energy quickly issued a warning about the experimental plant, stating that it might cost too much and urging a reassessment of the design. The public-private partnership between FutureGen and the DOE entails the DOE providing 74% of the required funds. This plant will provide information on the feasibility of carbon sequestration.

Matthew Wald of the New York Times explained the technology that will be implemented by the plant on All Things Considered: “They take the coal, and instead of grinding it up and burning it, the way you do in a conventional plant, they cook it, and it gives off two gasses: hydrogen, which is benign — when you burn it you get nothing but water — and carbon monoxide, which we think of as a pollutant, but here as a fuel gas. You mix the carbon monoxide with water; it grabs hydrogen out of the water, so you then end up with carbon dioxide, nicely separated, and more hydrogen. You burn the hydrogen to make power, and then you have this nice clean flow of CO2 that you can dispose of.”

In 2006, coal power plants generated about 50% of the nation’s electricity, while emitting roughly 40% of the total carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers capturing carbon and pumping it underground to be a likely solution for slowing climate change. Although carbon sequestration has the potential to significantly decrease emissions, the word clean perhaps can never accurately be used to describe coal.

Putting the carbon emission aside, coal mining is responsible for extensive environmental damage. Forests and streams are destroyed, impacting water quality and wildlife habitat.

Despite the environmental impacts of coal mining, the low-emissions plant in Mattoon, IL is certainly an improvement from business as usual. This prototype plant will help answer some of the questions that surround carbon sequestration and its feasibility for mitigating climate change.

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