The Week in Green Energy: Mixed Signals from Washington Doom Clean Coal Project

Last year President Barack Obama’s attempt at sweeping climate change legislation died a slow death in a congress exhausted by the fight over healthcare. While advocates of a wide-ranging federal climate change policy bemoaned congress’ lack of action at the time, few openly worried about the fate of “clean coal.” This is largely because clean coal is treated as the red-headed stepchild of the clean energy community, shunned as the least “clean” of emerging green technologies. However, with clean coal shaping up to be one of the first victims of Washington’s inability to agree on a comprehensive approach to greenhouse gas emissions, it could also be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

This week major clean coal player American Electric Power (AEP) announced that it is abandoning its initiative to install a commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) system at the company’s Mountaineer coal-fueled power plant in New Haven, West Virginia. In 2009, AEP was selected by the Department of Energy (DOE) to receive up to $334 million through the Clean Coal Power Initiative to pay part of the costs for installation of a commercial-scale CCS system at the plant. Initially the company claimed the CCS system would capture 90% of the plants carbon output. Now AEP is essentially abandoning any attempt to advance CCS technology to a commercial scale.

“The AEP decision shows how Washington’s piecemeal approach to green energy can cause unease.”

While the economy certainly played a role in AEP’s decision, without a long-term climate policy the company is also unsure about the strength of the federal government’s commitment to clean coal.

“We are placing the project on hold until economic and policy conditions create a viable path forward,” Michael G. Morris, AEP chairman and chief executive officer said in a statement. Clean coal advocates have reason to worry about the government’s loyalty to CCS technology. While the coal lobby has undeniable political clout and President Obama himself touted clean coal in this year’s state of the union address, many environmentalists claim CCS technology remains unproven. On the other side of the political spectrum fiscal conservatives are loath to advance the technology using taxpayers’ money.

CCS is certainly no closer to commercialization given AEP’s recent move, though FutureGen Alliance, the other major CCS developer, assures G.E.R that its $1.3 billion project (about $1 billion of which comes from the federal government) in southern Illinois is on track. “(FutureGen) is a different project (than Mountaineer). If anything (the AEP move) probably makes FutureGen more critical,” a spokesman for the alliance said this week.

Obviously AEP’s decision is not the end of clean coal, but it does underscore how a questionable government commitment to new energy technologies can sink a project. In an environment where fiscal conservatives seem intent on slashing funding for even the most politically connected forms of cleantech, the AEP decision shows how Washington’s piecemeal approach to green energy can cause unease. Clean coal may be much maligned in some green energy circles, but it has some of the same problems as the rest of the sector. Without a more comprehensive, long-term approach from federal authorities, other cleantech initiatives will go the way of Mountaineer.

Mark Pabst, San Francisco 

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