Commentary: Electric power sector reduces emissions with shift from coal

The director of electric power at sustainability nonprofit Ceres writes that, despite the president’s efforts to prop up coal, a market-driven clean energy transition is well underway.

Dan Bakal

While the President of the United States has repeatedly signaled an interest in propping up pollution-intensive and costly coal, the market has spoken to the contrary. For the first time, natural gas has overtaken coal as the largest source of electricity in the U.S. Combined with increased reliance on renewable energy resources, this has led to a reduction in air pollutant emissions among the nation’s 100 largest electricity producers.

That’s just one of the findings of the recent annual analysis released by Ceres and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States, the latest in a series that has highlighted environmental performance in the nation’s electric power sector since 1997.

In just a decade, we’ve seen an electric power role reversal. In 2006, coal accounted for nearly half of all electric power production in the U.S. By 2016, that was down to 30 percent. Meanwhile, during that same period, natural gas rose from 20 to 34 percent of the electricity production mix. Over that time span, generation from renewables grew 92 percent to make up 17 percent of the total last year.

With renewable sources and natural gas on the rise and coal in decline, along with increased deployment of energy efficiency, it’s no wonder that power plant emissions are down. Notably, this shift has occurred even as economic growth has increased, further evidence that decarbonization and economic growth can – and do – go hand in hand. In fact, from 2005 to 2017, electric sector carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 24 percent while GDP grew by 20 percent.

Looking ahead, the percentage of the U.S. electricity generation mix derived from renewable sources is expected to keep growing as the cost of renewables continues to decline, as illustrated in another recent Ceres report, In Sight of the Clean Trillion: Update on an Expanding Landscape of Investor Opportunities.

Indeed, as renewable energy continues to out-compete other resources, several of the largest U.S. electricity producers have recently set new long-range greenhouse gas reduction goals. For example:

  • American Electric Power (AEP) committed to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050 and 60 percent below 2000 levels by 2030;
  • Southern Company committed to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent below 2007 levels by 2030 and to reach low- to no-carbon emissions by 2050;
  • Duke Energy committed to reduce CO2 emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030;
  • DTE Energy committed to reduce CO2 emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050;
  • PNM Resources committed to reduce CO2 emissions to 87 percent below 2012 levels by 2040;
  • PPL Corporation announced a commitment to reduce CO2 emissions 70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050; and
  • CMS Energy announced a commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2040.

While such progress is encouraging, greater ambition on both the pace and scale of decarbonization is required from the electric power sector in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Some electric power companies have a particularly important role to play, as air pollution emissions from power plants are highly concentrated among a small number of producers. For example, nearly a quarter of the electric power industry’s CO2 emissions are emitted by just five of the top 100 producers.

Beyond carbon, clean energy transition in the electric power sector is having additional positive impacts: mercury pollution from power plants has decreased 86 percent from 2000 levels, thanks in great part to the first-ever federal limits on mercury and other hazardous pollutants from coal-fired power plants, which were introduced in 2012. Electric power industry representatives have recently requested that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keep these Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in place in order to provide regulatory certainty. In addition, SO2 and nitrogen oxide emissions were 91 and 82 percent lower, respectively, than they were in 1990 when Congress passed major amendments to the Clean Air Act.

And so it is that we find ourselves with a growing economy and decreasing air pollution from power plants. This is welcome news for all Americans, who care about economic growth, cleaner and more affordable electricity, and their children’s ability to breathe clean air with lesser likelihood of asthma and other pollution-related health impacts. Coal is on its way out, and clean energy transition is well underway.

Dan Bakal is director of electric power at sustainability nonprofit Ceres.

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