US Emissions Decline Reflects Clean Energy Transition

An analysis of 2010 emissions data from the top 100 power plants in the US shows that three major pollution sources are trending down as the industry transitions to natural gas and renewable energy.

The 2012 Benchmarking Air Emissions report uses 2010-2011 data from the US Energy Information Administration and the  Environmental Protection Agency to find trends in four power plant pollutants: carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and mercury (Hg).

100 utilities were studied – their 2,500 power plants account for a large majority of electricity generation (86%) and emissions (88%).

Three of the pollutants studied have declined significantly, thanks to closing coal plants and greater reliance on natural gas and renewable energy.

Renewable energy use by these utilities has doubled since 2004, reaching almost 5% of the US electricity supply.  And natural gas now supplies about the same amount of energy as coal, about 32%.

Because of this, SO2 emissions are down 40% and NOx emissions are down 35% since 2008 (Trend data for mercury isn’t available since reporting requirements are more recent).

Power plants are a key source of these pollutants. In 2010, they were responsible for about 65% of SO2 emissions overall, 16% of NOx emissions, 68% of mercury air emissions and 40% of CO2 emissions.

And about 40 gigawatts (GW) of coal plants are being closed this year, representing 12% of the US coal-fired capacity. 

Meanwhile, natural gas consumption by the electric power sector has risen an average of 4% annually for the past 10 years.

Southern Company, for example, one of the nation’s most coal-intensive power producers, will use more natural gas than coal in 2012 for the first time in its 100-year history.

"This is an historic transition for the electric power industry," says Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, which prepared the report with M.J. Bradley & Associates, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Entergy, Exelon, Tenaska and Bank of America. "More and more power producers are shifting away from coal-fired generation in favor of lower-emitting natural gas-fired plants, renewable power and energy efficiency. The economic case for cleaner energy is better than it’s ever been, and this report shows that the industry is adapting to stronger Clean Air Act emissions standards, state-driven efficiency and renewable energy incentives and the dynamics of the current natural gas market."

As we have written previously, CO2 emissions from power plants are down 9% since 2008, more than any country or region. Although they still have a long way to go (up 24% since 1990), the trend is definitely in the right direction.  

That’s despite a global rise in emissions to record levels in 2011, largely due to a 9.3% leap in greenhouse gas emissions in China.

Where Does Each State Stand?

Another cut on the data by one of the report’s co-authors, NRDC, identifies the Top 20 states in terms of toxic emissions, led by Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 18 of these states were also on the 2009 list. They are (from worst to best):

  1. Kentucky
  2. Ohio
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. Indiana
  5. West Virginia
  6. Florida
  7. Michigan
  8. North Carolina
  9. Georgia
  10. Texas
  11. Tennessee
  12. Virginia
  13. South Carolina
  14. Alabama
  15. Missouri
  16. Illinois
  17. Mississippi
  18. Wisconsin
  19. Maryland
  20. Delaware 

The 2012 Benchmarking Air Emissions report is here:

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Comments on “US Emissions Decline Reflects Clean Energy Transition”

  1. Joe

    I understand that, also, when the economy slows, pollution slows…given the how we make the bulk of our energy today from fossil fuels. ‘Hope our children can enjoy the reversal of that.


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