Though Donald Trump throws the term around with abandon, the number of “clean coal” power plants in America today is exactly zero. These entirely theoretical plants, in which carbon dioxide is captured and either piped underground or used for some other industrial process, have a long history, including the FutureGen project launched by George W. Bush in 2003. Originally estimated at $1.65 billion, FutureGen was supposed to test, not just carbon capture, but a whole suite of technologies designed to make burning coal less environmentally harmful and more efficient. The project dragged on for more than a dozen years, but despite the government offering to kick in $1 billion, costs eventually climbed out of sight and the plant never broke ground.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, the Kemper County Energy Facility was a good deal less ambitious. Though it was budgeted at $2.4 billion when it began construction in 2010, Kemper avoided much of the gee-whiz technology slated for the failed FutureGen and instead made the idea of capturing and storing CO2 its primary party trick.
Now, with the project running three years behind schedule and costs having ballooned to over $7.3 billion, the nation’s first “clean coal power plant” appears to be adding another very special feature.
After years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, Mississippi regulators on Wednesday called on Southern to work up a deal that would have the Kemper plant fueled only by gas. …
Settling for gas only at Southern’s Kemper plant threatens to undermine the business rationale for the kind of clean-coal technology the Trump administration has hailed as a way to save jobs at mines.
What Kemper has demonstrated isn’t “clean coal,” but the folly of pouring money into technology designed to keep an industry in business when there are already better alternatives.
Much of the blame for cost overruns at Kemper has been aimed at the combined-cycle coal gassification system, but the technology has been in commercial use since the 1980s and several plants were built with that technology over the last two decades. What’s made the process so difficult at Kemper is the determination to burn low-quality lignite coal mined locally—low-Btu, dirty coal that has no other market. That’s proven to be much more challenging than expected.
Kemper is so far behind that the company that was supposed to receive the stored CO2 (for use in pressurizing oil wells) has sued to get back the cost of the pipeline they built to the nonfunctional plant. The state has sued the power company for passing cost overruns on to customers. And both shareholders and regulators are turning on the board.
After all the money that’s been spent by the taxpayers of Mississippi, it appears that Kemper is likely to leave clean coal where it’s always been—as a myth.