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Even with an injection of Bloomberg bucks, the Sierra Club is still a long way from getting the U.S. to truly move beyond coal. Even though U.S. coal generation hit a 30-year low in the first quarter of 2011, coal is still far and away the single biggest source of electricity in the country. And then there are carbon emissions. While existing technology can vastly reduce traditional pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulates from coal combustion, there's still no commercially viable way to take the carbon out of coal. Pilot projects in the U.S. to build such "clean coal" plants have stalled--AEP suspended a $668 million clean-coal project this summer--largely because Congress has failed to enact limits on carbon emissions. "The U.S. simply isn't taking the steps needed to clean coal," says John Thompson, director of the coal transition project at CATF.
Other countries, however, are moving forward on clean coal--and they're not the ones you might expect. China has partnered with American power companies like Charlotte, N.C.--based Duke Energy to develop clean-coal plants that can capture and sequester carbon emissions--and do so economically. (Here China's ravenous demand for power is an advantage, allowing the government to throw up experimental pilot plants far faster than the U.S. could.) But such work underscores how central coal remains to China, which has already burned more than 2.5 million tons of the stuff this year, up 10.3% from 2010. "Coal is the dominant worldwide fuel today and will be in 2010 and 2020 and 2030 and 2040 and 2050," says AEP's Morris.
Given the enormous size of the challenge before them, environmentalists are going to need chutzpah as much as they do a checkbook. "We will devote more resources to moving America beyond coal than anything the Sierra Club has done in its 125-year history," says Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director. "We will create a breakthrough." The war on coal--and there is one--is just beginning.