The reality is not quite as rosy as it looks. This same issue arose in 2007, when the nuclear industry tried to force $50 billion in loan guarantees through. Historically, nuclear and coal and oil have received giant federal subsidies in the form of loan guarantees, tax breaks, and direct subsidies via zero-oversight federal contracting deals. Despite popular pressure to roll back these subsidies and promises by politicians to do so, they largely remain intact – only gross expansions of these subsidies have been defeated – and according to reports, the $2 billion for the FutureGen “clean coal” project remains in the bill.
That’s $2 billion for one generation plant using an apparently failed technology. (The U.S. federal budget for ALL solar photovoltaic research is about 1/20th of that, $100 million) The technology is secret and proprietary and is controlled by a financial consortium of private coal interests (i.e. Southern, Peabody, BHPBilliton, etc.) and military government contractors (Battelle, the primary organizer). There are no published papers on the technology, which they refuse to talk about because it is proprietary. Try asking the technical advisers about it:
Battelle is the world’s largest private research corporation, who manages five National Labs for the Department of Energy and plays the leading role in the U.S. biological warfare program, as well as in many other areas of military and commercial R&D. They are the proprietary controllers of FutureGen technology, and they’ve never published anything on it either. Despite the public financing of the project, Battelle insists that only “non-proprietary performance data” can be released, whatever that means. Fraud is the most likely story here.
The fact of the matter is that carbon sequestration-based coal combustion does not work, and will never work, on simple physical arguments. There’s also no prototype – for example, a car that drives down the road while capturing all CO2 emissions in the trunk. Try sticking a potato in the tailpipe – that’s what all CO2 sequestration involves – massive power losses. It’s likely that if you could design a coal plant that captured 90% of its CO2 emissions, it would only produce 10% of the power (per ton of coal) that a dirty modern coal plant does. There’s no way around it, especially if the coal is loaded up with sulfur and mercury and arsenic, as is typical.
What we don’t see is $2 billion to build an integrated wind-solar power system with backup biomass generations in some city as a test case. They are doing this in Germany – but not here. The reason for that is that the Democratic politicians from the coal states are dedicated supporters of the coal industry, and yes, that does include Obama and Dick Durbin, as well as Jeff Bingaman.
The last thing the coal industry wants to see is a city anywhere in the U.S. that operates entirely on renewable power – but it can be done, and it would be the perfect example. $2 billion would be a good initial investment – but there would be howls from the fossil fuel industry, that’s for sure – and they own Congress, more or less. You don’t see oil executives and coal executives being hauled before Congress the way the auto and finance executives were, do you? And no one is asking financiers why they are investing their bailout money in fossil fuels and not in renewables, either. (Bloomberg reported that Morgan Stanley and Citigroup were buying oil up and storing it in supertankers – a way to drive up the price, or to reserve oil for when prices rise – and these banks are also invested in fossil fuels, thanks to the repeal of Glass-Steagall banking rules c.1999 – and that’s why those rules were put in place – banks should not be able to loan their customer’s money to firms that they hold shares in, period).
I would put the celebrations on hold – this stimulus package is the equivalent of a band aid on a shark bite. There’s a whole lot of work to be done still, and the issues are very complicated. This was not a defeat for coal interests – they lost nothing, and even gained a little something. It would be a lot easier if the press would honestly cover this story, but they haven’t.