In March '06 India signed an agreement with the US to participate in the FutureGen project. FutureGen is a $1 billion initiative to build world's first zero emission fossil fuel (coal) power plant. You read that right... COAL POWER PLANT!! According to the DOE press release, India is the first country to join this project. This news item in The Hindu reports that India will contribute $10 million towards the project. So what is FutureGen?
The DOE webpage about the project touts it as "Tomorrow's Pollution-Free Power Plant"
The initiative is a response to President Bush's directive to draw upon the best scientific research to address the issue of global climate change. The production of hydrogen will support the President's call to create a hydrogen economy and fuel pollution free vehicles; and the use of coal will help ensure America's energy security by developing technologies that utilize a plentiful domestic resource. (read more)A feature story in the March'06 issue of National Geog. Magazine reported that US has the largest reserves of coal in the world (~27% of Global reserves) and 50% of the electricity in the US comes from coal. So it makes sense to try to develop clean coal technology. The reason for India joining the project are pretty obvious too. India has ~10 % of world's coal and with the growing energy demand in India coal consumption is going up.
How does FutureGen plan to use coal and be "clean" (zero/low GHG emission) at the same time. The FutureGen website actually has a pretty good writeup on the technologies that they plan to use...
Researchers and industry have made great progress advancing technologies to support coal gasification, electricity generation, emissions control, carbon dioxide capture and storage, and hydrogen production. While these technologies exist today, they have yet to be integrated and tested at a single plant, which is essential for such plants to be technically and commercially viable.This schematic from the FutureGen website is also helpful (click to enlarge)
Actually, the commercial viability of many of these technologies is already proven. Coal gasification to produce Syngas is a decently known technology. It is easier to remove pollutants such as sulfur from the Syngas rather than scrub then out of the exhaust gases, as many of the coal power plants today do. CO2 separation from the Syngas is also understood fairly well. In the US there are coal-gasification based power plants in Indiana and Florida but they don't carry out CO2 separation and sequestration. A chemical plant in North Dakota produces Syngas and some other products from gasified coal. It also separates CO2 and pumps it 325 km North to Weyburn oil fields in Canada to sequester it inside the depleted oil-field. I am not sure how developed and tested the CO2 sequestration technology is. In most cases the CO2 is stored in depleted oil-wells. But does it stay there or does it leak out into the atmosphere? How safe is the technology? I don't know much about it right now and I plan to look into these questions in future. For now, check out this website if you want to learn more.
So FutureGen is not at all a "giant leap forward" in terms of technology as it may seem at first look. It is only going to bring together all these technologies in a single power plant. The project is still in its "siting, Environmental review and Permitting " phase and is not supposed to start full scale operations till 2013. All this is well and good. But over all, how much environmental and social sense does this whole project make? In future all these technologies can make using coal environmentally safe, but to use it we need to get it out of the ground first and there in lies the root of another problem.
Coal mining itself takes a very large environmental and social toll. The Nat. Geographic article mentioned above had a follow-up feature article titled "When mountains move". It was about "mountain top removal" (MTR) or "valley fill" mining, a practice which is being increasingly used by coal companies in the US. In this type of mining, mountaintop (or rather, whole mountains) are cleared of vegetation and then they are removed totally to reach the coal seams underneath. The tons of earth that is generated as a result of mountain top removal is filled into a valley. This practice has a devastating impact on the environment. In the US, groups like Mountain Justice Summer (MJS) and Ohio Valley Environmental coalition (OVEC) are actively involved in campaigns against this type of mining. The MJS fact sheet on this mining practice says..
...Mountaintop removal /valley fill mining annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes.It is a sad truth that whatever the big mining corporations can easily do here in the US, it is even more easier for them to do it in India. Environmental regulations are not very strictly enforced in India, the bureaucracy is corrupt and can be easily bribed, justice system is slow. The system of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is seriously flawed and incorporates very limited room for public hearings. Coal mining industry has been largely publicly owned until now. Since 2003 the government has opened some areas to private investments. The US (indirectly through the World Bank in most cases) is funding many mining projects in India. There have been cases where the government owned company, Coal India has illegally encroached upon lands owned by indigenous people and failed to provide them with adequate compensation. Mine safety is also very lax and there have been numerous accidents involving many casualties in coal mines in India. (To read more about mining related issues in India and elsewhere see this website).
I guess my point is, even though clean energy generation from coal is possible - after it is mined - the process of mining itself involves huge and devastating impact on the natural environment. The government (here in US as well as in India) has largely sided with the coal industry and the cause of environmental justice has been forwarded largely by people's movements and NGOs. In India particularly, the sad state of environmental laws, regulation and enforcement means more environmental damage if India decides to give coal a greater role in providing for the energy needs. Technologies like gasification can be used with biomass fuel sources too which are largely carbon neutral (if they are grown specifically for the purpose of generating energy). It would be wiser in my opinion to invest heavily in such alternative/renewable technologies, decentralized generation etc. Opting for coal may lead to a dark future for many communities who, as far as the record shows till date, have hardly benefited from the "development" that the energy is supposed to bring about.