Cap and trade policies that were to drive the industry to clean coal have not materialized as imagined. And the explosive shift to natural gas has cut coal-fired electricity generation by about 10 percent over the last decade, thus reducing emissions.
Still, clean coal technologies are progressing, although work continues but at a slower pace than anticipated just a few years ago.
For example, after some funding setbacks, the FutureGen project, which re-launched as FutureGen 2.0, is pushing ahead with its coal gasification, emissions controls, and carbon dioxide capture and storage work. Rather than building a near zero-emissions coal-fueled power plant as was the initial goal, the program now focuses on developing technology approaches to work on existing coal-fired power plants.
To that end, FutureGen 2.0 uses an oxy-fuel combustion approach. With this approach, coal is burned using a mixture of pure oxygen and recycled CO2 flue gases instead of air. This technique produces a concentrated CO2 stream that can be captured and stored.
Phase one of the project, a design stage, was completed in 2012. In February 2013, the Department of Energy announced funding for phase two, which includes permitting and final design. At about the same time, the FutureGen Alliance announced the proposed pipeline route that would deliver the capture carbon dioxide from the selected existing power plant in Meredosia, Illinois, to the chosen underground storage location in Morgan County, Illinois.
Similar to FutureGen, many other carbon emissions control projects focus on the combustion process. One promising technology that is moving beyond a small trial to a larger-scale pilot stage is based on coal-direct chemical looping. Coal-direct chemical looping chemically harnesses coal's energy and contains the carbon dioxide produced before it can be released into the atmosphere.
Groups around the world are exploring this technology. Recently, researchers at Ohio State completed two sub-pilot tests that proved the potential effectiveness of the technology. To see if the technology scales well, a pilot plant is under construction at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, AL. Set to begin operations in late 2013, that plant will produce 250 thermal kilowatts.