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Oops: Did a math error doom FutureGen, the world's first clean-coal plant?

Congressional investigators charge that Bush administration energy officials put the kibosh on FutureGen based on what turned out to be a megabuck mathematical error. The finding could pump new life into the project, which was slated to be the world’s first near-zero-emissions coal plant until early last year when it was deemed too pricey to build.

“I am astonished to learn that the top leadership of the Department of Energy in the last administration made critical decisions about our nation’s energy future and capacity to combat global warming based on fundamental budget math errors,” Rep. Bart Gordon (D–Tenn.) told the The New York Times.  “This is math illiteracy on a grand scale and with global consequences.”

Gordon’s chagrin comes courtesy of a report (pdf) released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's investigative arm, which found that the Department of Energy (DOE) had essentially forgotten to account for inflation when estimating FutureGen’s projected costs. Specifically, the department had said in 2004 that it would cost $950 million to build, a sum that it last year said had ballooned to $1.8 billion when projected through 2017. In fact, the GAO says, the actual cost considering inflation would be closer to $1.3 billion—a cool half billion less than the figures cited in justifying the killing of a centerpiece of clean-coal initiatives. (Perhaps disappointingly for Bush administration critics, the report points to incompetence and not political tampering for the mistake.)

FutureGen, announced in 2003, was intended to demonstrate that coal – the world’s top power source—could be burned to produce electricity without belching millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The U.S. government was to foot about three-quarters of the bill for the experimental plant with the private sector chipping in the rest. Notably, energy-hungry China and India had pledged to pitch in about 8 percent of the costs to see if their diet of coal could be tempered by FutureGen’s so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology (that is, capturing the climate-change-causing carbon dioxide emissions before they're released into the air and storing them underground).   

All that came to an abrupt halt in February 2008 when the Bush administration terminated funding levels appropriate for the scale of the project. The move sparked outrage from many quarters, and utility executives predicted that the proposed cutting-edge plant’s demise would set CCS back ten years.

President Obama is a clean-coal backer—and his election raised hope among supporters that FutureGen might actually have a future. In fact, some Washington observers expect that $1 billion set aside in the recently passed economic recovery package for "fossil energy research and development" may be forked over to resuscitate the project.

An artist's concept of the FutureGen clean coal plant in Mattoon, Illinois. Image Credit: DOE

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