By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said Friday they were halfway to their goal of getting one-third of coal-fired power plants retired by 2015 through a variety of civic actions.
Bloomberg gave the Sierra Club $50 million in 2011 to launch the "Beyond Coal" campaign, which set a goal to preside over the retirement 105,000 megawatts of coal-fired power in four years and encourage a shift toward renewable energy.
The campaign took credit for helping retire an average of one coal plant per week in 2012 by engaging in public utility commission hearings, legal actions over federal Clean Air Act violations and taking part in investor meetings.
The campaign crossed the halfway mark this week after American Electric Power (AEP) announced Monday it will stop burning coal at three Midwest power plants by 2015 as part of a settlement with federal regulators, states and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.
Environmental groups said the Ohio-based company, long known as the biggest coal generator in the country, would retire a total of 2,011 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired capacity at plants in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
Since President Barack Obama took office power companies, including AEP, have announced plans to retire over 40,000 MW of coal capacity over the next several years as weak natural gas prices pushed power prices to decade lows.
Bloomberg told reporters that natural gas will continue to play a central role in the U.S. energy mix as the country weans itself off of coal use.
Solar and wind generation will only play small part in overall U.S. energy consumption, while hydro power can "help in some areas" but is constrained by energy transmission issues, Bloomberg said.
"It's safe to assume that natural gas will be part of the mix for a while," he said. "We are better off getting off coal even if it means going back to natural gas."
Bloomberg also said he supports the practice of natural gas drilling via hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," which faces deep opposition in the state of New York.
"We certainly should be drilling for gas," he said, but added that it should not be done in watershed areas.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by David Gregorio)