Is the Future(Gen) here?

FutureGen is alive. DOE Secretary Chu today announced an agreement with the FutureGen Alliance, the industrial consortium involved in the project, that moves the ball forward on its construction. This comes after several months of limbo, after the previous administration had decided to "restructure" the project because of escalating costs, which essentially put it in the freezer.

Sec. Chu should be commended for his prompt efforts in this area, and for finally honoring DOE's initial commitment from years ago to develop this project. The reputation of the U.S. government suffered when the project seemed destined for cancellation, with the international community questioning whether the U.S. was truly committed to advancing the deployment of Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) technology. Today's announcement restores credibility in the government's efforts.

The broader question still remains, however. How big of a deal is this announcement, and what impact will it have on CCS deployment? As welcome as today's news might be, the fact remains that FutureGen still is "too much future, and too little gen", as David Hawkins had previously remarked. It is one of many projects out there, and does not hold the keys to CCS deployment.

The main reason is that the key barriers to CCS are not technological, but economic. In fact, there is a number of proposed commercial projects out there (by Hydrogen Energy, Tenaska, Summit Power and others) that are testament to the readiness of the technology, and most of which would feature a higher percentage of capture and sequestration than today's announcement suggests for FutureGen. The task at hand is not to "develop" or "prove" the technology, but to ensure that there is a market that will draw private sector investment. What CCS needs is a supportive policy framework that will place a price on carbon emissions and bridge the initial economic gap for CCS with targeted incentives.

There is a proposal in Congress that would do just that: the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy & Security Act. Without a climate bill, CCS is at a dead end, and any DOE money spent on it will have been in vain. The House will be voting on the bill in the next few weeks. Let's hope that members will follow the lead of the Energy & Commerce committee, and make the right choice for our economy, energy security and our planet's health.