Staff Editorial: Coal plant could find good home in Illinois

A proposed coal power plant that could come to central Illinois is creating a buzz for a number of good reasons. The $1 billion plant, funded as a joint project between FutureGen Alliance and the U.S. Department of Energy, could bring cleaner energy, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the local economy when it is finished in 2012.

Last week, Mattoon and Tuscola made the short list of towns country-wide that could host the project. But the two towns are not only competing against each other for the FutureGen development, but also against two cities in Texas.

There are a number of reasons that central Illinoisans should be happy at the prospect of the new plant. Given Illinois’ current economic woes, the increase in commerce from the proposed plant could be a crucial instrument for downstate development. FutureGen could not only give the economy a boost, but city officials at Mattoon and Tuscola are hoping the “world’s cleanest coal plant” will put their city on the eco-friendly map. The proposed plant will convert coal into highly-enriched hydrogen gas that will burn cleaner than coal and emit less carbon dioxide. The remaining greenhouse gasses would be permanently stored underground.

The plant will provide the added benefit of producing energy where energy is needed. Nuclear plants currently dot the countryside, but do not provide enough power to central Illinois, which buys power from Chicago. Concerns about the safety of nuclear power, unfounded or not, are still of interest to neighbors.

FutureGen should also have a stake in establishing themselves in Illinois and proving the effectiveness of their plant in producing clean energy. Illinois is notorious for its dirty coal. Operating a clean coal plant in Illinois would be a challenge, but it would also mean improving the reputation of coal as a clean source of energy.

Long term, Illinois will need to invest in more renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. But today, and into the future, we have a natural resource in coal to utilize. The trick will be to make coal a clean, eco-friendly source of power, until fossil fuels are a thing of the past. Illinois should try to be the state to make both of these things happen.