Until recently, “clean coal” power plants like the 600-megawatt Mesaba Energy Project had seemed like the energy industry’s perfect retort to Al Gore: a plant on the Iron Range that could produce reliable power using abundant coal and yet not muck up the environment.

But the controversial project failed to win regulatory approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission this week and similar projects using the same technology elsewhere are collapsing over concerns about cost and feasibility.

So has the time for “clean coal” passed before it could even begin?

Julie Jorgensen doesn’t think so. The co-CEO and founder of Wayzata-based Excelsior Energy believes her company’s $2.1 billion project will be back and so will its technology, called integrated gas-combined cycle, or IGCC for short.

The state’s power companies, including Xcel Energy, need fossil fuels to meet growing energy needs, she said, and IGCC scrubs coal of many pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides by a process that turns it into a gas before burning.

The energy industry believes that within a few years, Washington will enact regulations levying heavy penalties on producers of carbon dioxide emissions, which are believed to be accelerating global warming. Utilities are turning to alternatives ranging from wind to solar power to “clean coal” technologies to reduce their carbon emissions.

“We think IGCC is a silver bullet in any climate-change scenario,” Jorgensen

That bullet has misfired badly of late, though. Xcel Energy, which opposed the Excelsior project because it didn’t want to be forced to buy Mesaba’s power, this week shelved an IGCC proposal of its own for the state of Colorado.

Xcel said that after two years of study, it decided its own $1 billion IGCC proposal was too costly to build without a partner. 

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