But coal provides more than half of the electricity used by the U.S., and China builds the equivalent of two 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants each week, helping keep these nations at the top of the list of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters. "Since the transition away from fossil fuels is likely to take a very long time, we foresee a long-term need to deal with coal-based emissions and, therefore, the sooner we begin to develop [carbon capture and storage] technology, the better," Austin-based energy policy specialist Scott Anderson of Environmental Defense told a Senate panel earlier this year during a hearing on CCS technology. "We aren't champions of coal, but we are realists."
Research into other ways to avoid greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal continues, particularly into so-called post-combustion capture, which captures the CO2 after the coal has been burned. This leads to cheaper electricity prices because it skips the coal-to-gas step, but it is more technically difficult to extract the diffuse greenhouse gas in the smokestack. "If we have a breakthrough in post-combustion capture it would really be a game-changer," Herzog says.
Meanwhile, the FutureGen Alliance—a consortium of 14 of the world's largest coal producers and coal burners behind the proposed plant—plans to continue to pursue the facility, but not without some form of government assistance. One option would be to convince Congress to fund the project directly, Herzog says.
There are also similar efforts underway elsewhere in the world, such as China's GreenGen initiative. More are needed, Herzog says, if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided while coal continues to be a major fuel. "There should be about 10 large demonstrations worldwide, and at least three of them should be in the U.S.," he adds. "How can we expect to build hundreds of these plants when we're having so much trouble building the first one?"
In addition to imperiling efforts to combat climate change, canceling FutureGen also sets back plans for a so-called "hydrogen economy." As originally proposed, the plant would have produced both electricity and "clean" hydrogen from coal, as the CO2 would be captured and stored. No such hydrogen production is planned at any existing or planned IGCC plants. "Why was this such a great idea even a few months ago, let alone five years ago when it was announced?" Herzog asks. "The best way to proceed would be to keep FutureGen alive."