Bloomberg Thinks Beyond Coal

The New York Times reports that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York announced on Thursday that his main charitable organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, would donate $50 million over four years to the Sierra Club's campaign to shut down coal plants and move the United States toward cleaner sources of energy.

Appearing with the Sierra Club's executive director, Michael Brune, near a coal plant in Alexandria, VA., Mr. Bloomberg said he hoped that his gift would help the environmental group retire as many as a third of the nation's oldest coal-fired power plants by 2020.  Coal provides nearly half of the nation's electricity but is also responsible for roughly a third of the country's output of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering greenhouse gases, as well as millions of tons a year of pollutants that damage human health and the environment.

"If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal," Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. "Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water and the leading cause of climate disruption.

The campaign's goal is to cut electricity production from coal by 30 percent by 2020 and to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent.  The new money will be used to expand the club's campaign to 45 states from the current 15 and increase the member base to 2.4 million from 1.4 million, the group said.

Since 2008 Germany constructed a 30 MW thermal pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe called the Vattenfall project.  The plant is the world's first coal-fired power plant to use carbon capture and storage technology, in which carbon dioxide is stripped out the plant's emissions and pumped deep underground.  This "clean coal" technology has been hailed as a possible way to get cheap energy without further contributing to global warming.

The pilot plan has been in operation from the middle of 2008.  The initial testing program will run for three years.  Thereafter, the pilot plant will be available for other tests.  The plant is planned to be in operation for at least 10 years.  Critics have questioned their effectiveness in keeping emissions sealed underground.  Some experts have even wondered whether clean coal plants are a realistic option for large-scale energy production.

In the United States, companies are pursuing a different approach to clean coal, using a system called integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) that converts coal into a cleaner-burning gas before combustion.  There are currently four IGCC plants in operation in the U.S. and Europe that could produce concentrated CO2 streams suitable for capture and storage, but these plants currently vent the emissions into the atmosphere.