updated 2/27/2007 7:40:38 AM ET 2007-02-27T12:40:38

One of the world’s top climate scientists called for an end to building new coal-fired power plants in the United States because of their huge role in spewing out greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

In the next decade of so, 159 coal-fired power plants are scheduled to be built, generating enough power for about 96 million homes, according to a study last month by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants,” NASA scientist James Hansen told the National Press Club Monday. Hansen was one of the earliest top researchers to warn the world of global warming.

Hansen’s call dovetails with an edict by the private equity group buying TXU, a massive Texas-based utility. The equity group, led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Texas Pacific Group, agreed to stop plans to build eight new coal-fired power plants, not to propose new coal-fired plants outside Texas and to support mandatory national caps on emissions linked to global warming.

This is the first time Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, has called for an end to coal burning. He said it’s the No. 1 solution to global warming, and that so far, no coal-fired plants can capture carbon dioxide emissions so they are not released into the atmosphere.

While burning oil and natural gas also release carbon dioxide, they will run out and there’s more coal to burn and pollute the Earth, so it’s more of a threat, Hansen said.

“Coal is the big amount,” Hansen said. “Until we have that clean coal power plant, we should not be building them. It is as clear as a bell.”

Hansen, who said he was speaking as a private citizen, also told the press club that by mid-century all coal-fired power plants that do not capture and bury carbon dioxide “must eventually be bulldozed.” It’s foolish to build new ones if the emissions can’t be dealt with, he said.

He said the increased efficiency could make up for the cutbacks in coal.

Like the Bush administration, Hansen said he had high hopes for using cellulosic ethanol, or switchgrass, as an alternative fuel. But unlike the president’s plan which is big on this source for cars, Hansen proposes burning switchgrass for electrical power and sequestering the carbon dioxide emissions underwater so it would reduce the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide.

Although switchgrass could reduce our dependence on oil, burning switchgrass in cars would not reduce emissions much, he said.

Coal provides about half of the United States’ electricity, according to the Department of Energy.

Hansen’s call “ought to be vetted by those who have an understanding of the energy demands placed on the U.S. economy,” said National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. “When seen in light of those demands, then statements like that will appear unreasonable, to put it charitably.”

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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