MEREDOSIA, Ill. • Depending on your point of view, the hulking brick and steel structure here on the east bank of the Illinois River symbolizes coal's dirty past or a promising future.
This is Ameren Corp.'s 70-year-old Meredosia generating station. In its heyday, the 429-megawatt plant was among the largest employers in Morgan County, a rural area two hours north of St. Louis. Today, it's considered by some to be an energy dinosaur in an age of wind farms and green jobs.
Two of Meredosia's four generating units were mothballed because they were too inefficient. A third unit sits idle most of the time. Ameren tried to sell the aging plant last year but couldn't find a buyer. And dozens of workers were laid off — the product of the recession and reduced electricity demand.
Until Aug. 5, the future for Meredosia seemed as bleak as the burned-out neon sign that hangs on the plant's west face.
That's when Energy Secretary Steven Chu made a surprise announcement: The plant was selected as the centerpiece of the government's revamped FutureGen program to demonstrate the potential of capturing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fueled power plants.
There are no guarantees that the project will advance further than the first version of FutureGen, which was scrapped after eight years of political wrangling and rising costs. For now, though, it provides some hope for those who believe it's imperative to clean up the nation's aging fleet of coal-fueled power plants in the face of rising concerns about global warming.
There are about 600 coal-fired power plants nationwide, generating roughly half of the nation's electricity. On average, those plants are more than 30 years old and represent about 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — the single largest source of heat-trapping gases.
While some older, smaller coal plants like Meredosia would likely be shuttered if the government follows through with plans to a regulate CO², there is little doubt that larger, newer coal-fired generating plants will be a significant piece of the nation's electricity mix for decades to come.
That's why even some of coal's biggest critics concede that it is imperative to develop technology to retrofit existing plants to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
"I don't think it's possible to avert the worst aspects of climate change without this technology," said John Thompson, director of the coal transition project for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. "I say that as someone who wants to see all of the renewables we can build, all of the energy efficiency. But carbon capture and storage, especially with the existing fleet, it's game over if we don't do that."
FutureGen is not the Energy Department's only investment in carbon capture technology, not even in central Illinois. In July, the administration of President Barack Obama approved a $417 million tax credit for Tenaska Inc.'s $3.5 billion clean-coal power plant in Taylorville, 90 miles east of Meredosia.
But it is the federal government's highest profile effort to help commercialize new technology.
Under the restructured program, dubbed FutureGen 2.0, the federal government is committing $1 billion in stimulus funds.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012 and the 200-megawatt unit is supposed to begin generating electricity by the third quarter of 2015.
FutureGen wouldn't be the federal government's first involvement at Meredosia.
The U.S. War Production Board halted work there in 1942, a year after construction began, and re-directed the plant's turbo-generator and other materials to Russia, an ally in World War II.
The plant began generating electricity in 1948, and doubled its capacity the following year. Central Illinois Public Service Co., then the plant's owner, added another coal-fired generator in 1960 and added an oil-fired unit in 1975.
The FutureGen project will utilize only the plant's youngest unit, which sits idle most of the time. Even with crude oil prices well off their high of $140 a barrel, fuel is so expensive that it's rarely profitable enough to operate.
For years, St. Louis-based Ameren had been in search of another fuel source because the remainder of the plant's components are still in good shape.
"We've been looking and looking and looking for a project for Unit 4," said Mike Long, the plant's manager. "We've looked at everything from natural gas to petroleum coke to fish oil." (He spoke with an Illinois businessman about the potential to use the oil from Asian carp as a fuel, but quickly dismissed the idea after concluding it wouldn't be economic.)
It was serendipity that the Energy Department chose to restructure the FutureGen program and needed a site to host the project.
On a recent tour of Meredosia, Long shined a flashlight at components deep in the bowels of the plant — the feed pumps, condensers and heaters — all of which are still in good shape.
"It's kind of like your grandma's car that sits in the garage all of the time," he said. "That's why this site was attractive to (the Energy Department)."
The project involves replacing Meredosia's oil-fired steam generator with a coal boiler that uses oxygen instead of air during combustion. The result is an emissions stream of nearly pure carbon dioxide that can be captured and stored.
The so-called oxycombustion technology was developed by Ameren's partners, Babcock & Wilcox and Air Liquide, and has been tested at Babcock & Wilcox's research plant in Alliance, Ohio.
Plans call for capturing 90 percent of the FutureGen's CO² emissions, or about 1.3 million tons annually. The gas would be compressed to a liquid state, transported via pipeline and buried thousands of feet underground at a yet-to-be-chosen site in Southern Illinois.
Ameren won't have a part in planning and building the CO² pipeline or developing the storage site. Those tasks are being overseen by the FutureGen Industrial Alliance.
In fact, Ameren will face enough of a challenge just advancing its part of the FutureGen project.
Ameren and its partners must first complete detailed engineering plans to determine whether the project is commercially and technically viable. Then, the Illinois Legislature would have to pass legislation to help the company recover its costs. Only then would Ameren's board authorize construction.
The many technical, political and economic challenges are why supporters are skeptical that FutureGen 2.0 will advance beyond a concept.
While the federal government is contributing $1 billion to the project, Ameren says the project won't go forward unless it makes sense.
"It's our plant and we're going to have to live with it when we're done," Long said.