Kansas' Location Would be Good for Zero-Emissions Plant

It's the one giant coal-fired power plant that everyone seems to want.

Dec. 6—It's the one giant coal-fired power plant that everyone seems to want.

Kansas and about a dozen other states are trying hard to win FutureGen — a $1 billion pioneering plant that pumps carbon dioxide deep into the ground instead of into the atmosphere.

"It looks like an awfully good project," said Drew Malcomb, a public affairs specialist for the fossil energy program at the federal Department of Energy, which is overseeing it.

"If it is successful, which we have every indication it will be, it is going to be a watershed event in both the energy world and in the environmentalists' world because it is the best of both.

"This is cake and the icing too."

Instead of burning coal, the zero-emissions plant uses a process in which coal is turned into a synthetic gas. Hydrogen is drawn off and used to generate electricity, power hydrogen cars and could provide fuel for future uses.

The process also produces carbon dioxide, and the larger novelty of the plant is depositing the carbon dioxide underground. U.S. Department of Energy officials think three types of underground storage can be used: oil reservoirs, coal seams and deep saline aquifers.

"You will capture it, compress it to the point it becomes liquid and pump it underground where it won't ever bother us again," said Alex Silver, a vice president at Black & Veatch, an international engineering firm based in Kansas City and a member of a Kansas working group on FutureGen.

Coal-fired power plants have come under heavy criticism because the emissions from burning coal — nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide — are thought to contribute to global warming.

The first two pollutants are under increasingly tighter restrictions by the federal government. But carbon dioxide is not yet regulated by the federal government although a single power plant emits millions of tons each year.

Research on pumping carbon dioxide into the ground already is being conducted near Russell, where carbon dioxide created at an ethanol plant is being injected into oil reservoirs, state officials said. The carbon dioxide can be used to remove oil that couldn't be pumped out with an oil derrick, an added benefit that would allow Kansas to increase its oil production if it got the plant.

"They have gotten the easier stuff, and have to work a little harder to get the rest of it," Silver said.

It's estimated that Kansas has used up about 50 percent of its oil reserves, and that the process could recover 25 percent.

Although competition for the plant is expected to be rigorous, state officials think Kansas has some attributes that other states may not have.

"Kansas has a leg up," said Tim Carr, head of the energy research section at the Kansas Geological Survey.

Because the state was once a leader in oil and gas production, it has large underground reservoirs left behind after the deposits were depleted. Once the carbon dioxide is pressurized, it can be poured into them.

The state also has an advantage in its large network of pipelines that was laid for the oil and gas industry. Some of those pipelines might be used or additional ones could be built with little problem because the state already owns the right of way.

In addition, the state's location and proximity to one of the country's largest rail hubs makes it easier to ship a variety of coal from around the country for testing.

"It would be a benefit to the entire nation," said Silver. But Kansas has two major drawbacks.

It doesn't have well-placed congressional leadership fighting for it, state officials say.

A spokesman for Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said the state hasn't yet asked for assistance but Tiahrt would be ready to back Kansas' effort.

And Kansas doesn't have a seat among the industry giants that have formed a coalition to partner with the government on the plant. Members include American Electric Power, Kennecott Energy and Peabody Energy.

"We don't have the big boys," Carr said.

Still, he said, Kansas is working to put together a consortium of small and midsize utilities to try to garner a seat.

Other states expected to bid on the project include West Virginia, which has mine shafts and strong political backing from Sen. Robert Byrd; Illinois, which has an aggressive financial package and strong congressional leadership; and Texas, which has allocated $10 million from its general fund as an incentive and is the president's home state.

Other states include Ohio, Montana, North Dakota, Florida, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Kentucky.

Kansas, too, has a financial incentive after the legislature on unanimous votes put through a bill this past spring that would allow the state to issue bonds for the plant.

Even if Kansas doesn't win the plant, Kansas City could see some of the benefits because Black & Veatch and Burns & McDonnell Engineering, also locally based, already are in discussions with alliance members about the project.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, with President Bush's support, first announced the project early last year.

Abraham, who resigned last month, said that because of the large supplies of coal in the United States, coal will be a primary source of energy for hundreds of years to come.

The prototype plant would be 275 megawatts, and cost nearly $1 billion. The government hopes to select a bidder by the end of 2005 and make the plant operational within 10 years.

The federal government would pay 75 percent to 80 percent and industry, in a partnership with the government, would foot the rest.

A consortium of the largest industry corporations, FutureGen Alliance, has formed and is currently drawing up an agreement with the Energy Department.

Funding could become clear as early as February and jumpstart the project, said Henry Cialone, a vice president at Battelle Memorial Institute, which is coordinating the FutureGen Alliance.

Even environmentalists want the project to happen and are raising concerns that the timetable is too drawn out.

"I would prefer to see a more crash effort to see that a project like this is up and running quicker," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, a non-profit advocacy group. "The climate is getting warmer, and coal burning is a very big piece of that, and coal burning is likely to increase in the future.

"I think we need to find a way to make coal a modern fuel, so something like this is going to be crucial to make that happen."

To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com.© 2004, The Kansas City Star, Mo. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.