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Green Goods and Carbon Offsets

Many industries are aggressively finding ways to save energy and reduce harmful emissions, but others make claims for their products that are highly questionable. We take a look at "greenwashing".

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shut down and re-boot
Energy Dept. Scuttles Clean Coal Development

Four years into a project to develop the technologies needed to arrive at “clean coal” designs for the nation's electricity plants, the Department of Energy has pulled the plug, blaming higher cost projections as the reason.
     The 275-megawatt prototype plant was designed to convert coal into gas, strip and bury the mineral's carbon dioxide content, and then burn the gas to produce electricity. Called the FutureGen Alliance, the DOE had signed on to pick up 74% of its tab, with a consortium of 13 private utilities funding the rest.
     Six weeks ago, Mattoon, a town in downstate Illinois, had been selected for the site, edging out three other finalists, two of them from Texas. Senator Richard Durbin (D, IL) called the rug-pull a “cruel deception”. Some Illinois congressmen, irate over the loss of jobs the project would bring to the state, expressed doubt that the plan would have been scrapped had Texas been chosen. As far as we know, none voiced concern for setbacks in developing ways to burn coal free of CO2 emissions.
     Cost estimates for the experimental plant had risen to $1.8 billion from $1 billion, but Michael Mudd, the head of the alliance, says all but $300 million is attributable to inflation. Moreover, the private utility consortium has said it would cover the non-inflation differential. And just two days before the cancellation, President Bush proposed a 25% budget increase for coal technology to $648 million in his State of the Union speech saying, “Let us find new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions”.

 but was cost the real reason?
     These seeming contradictions raise questions of whether cost is the real culprit. The first of any complex technology will assuredly cost more than its replicas, and a prototype yields invaluable lessons, so cost should not usually be the primary concern. Perhaps the real reason for cancellation was that the DOE, which has taken four years only now to reach the point of putting shovel to ground, recognized that it had fallen badly behind, and cost was made the face-saving scapegoat. Administration officials argued that the project was badly flawed and that the "easy" thing to do would have been to let it run into the next administration, when its cancellation would have provided a chance for them to make political hay.
     Environmental groups that want to see an end to all coal-fired plants cheered the cancellation, in the belief that wind and solar can somehow provide for the nation's growing energy needs. We do not share that view. But if the U.S. is ever to reduce its oil addiction, it must explore every alternative, including how to make its inexhaustible coal reserves somehow usable.

 energy shortages on the way

Uncertainty over whether legislation regulating carbon emissions is likely and what form it may take has caused the utilities industry to forestall building some 50 plants in 20 states. Nationwide electricity shortages are just over  the horizon.
      Importantly, some recent developments offer hope that coal can be made into fuel without requiring complex and expensive "capture and sequestration" of CO2. The DoD has a program, called CBTL, for taking coal to fuel, using biomass to absorb the CO2. It seems likely that if the “clean coal” question cannot be resolved — and soon — we can look forward to a nuclear future.
      - Steve Wilson, PlanetWatch Editor,