An analysis of 2010 emissions data from the top 100 US power producers illustrates the positive impact of the industry’s ongoing transition to natural gas and renewable energy sources.
Although carbon dioxide power plant emissions rose 24% are up over the benchmark year (1990), they were off 4% from 2008-2010, and preliminary data suggests they are off 5% for 2011, according to the 2012 Benchmarking Air Emissions report.
The report considers 2010 generation and emissions data from the US Energy Information Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency, along with preliminary 2011 emissions data. It focuses on the four power plant pollutants for which data is publicly available: carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and mercury (Hg).
The 100 utilities studied for the report own approximately 2,500 power plants and account for 86% of reported electricity generation and 88% of reported emissions.
Since 2006, the US has reduced carbon emissions by 7.7% — more than any country or region,according to the International Energy Agency. 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.
The US transition away from coal over the past several years is a big part of the US progress, and that is underscored in this new report.
In 2010, sector-wide power plant of SO2 and NOx were both 68% lower than the benchmark year; from 2008-2010, SO2 emissions were off 32% and NOx emissions were down 31%. Preliminary data also indicate that in 2011, sector-wide power plant SO2 and NOx emissions continued to fall, dropping 40 percent and 35 percent below 2008 levels, respectively. (Trend data for mercury isn’t available since reporting requirements are more recent.)
In 2010, power plants were responsible for about 65% of the SO2 emissions overall, 16% of NOx emissions, 68% of mercury air emissions and 40% of CO2 emissions.
Further reductions are expected as these utility companies retire approximately 12% of the US coal-fired power plans. Indeed, data from April 2012 shows that electricity generation from natural gas is now almost equivalent to coal, which each fuel provider about 32% of generation in that month.
In addition, the amount of renewable energy generated by the companies considered in report doubled from 2004 to 2011, and now accounts for almost 5% of US electricity generation, according to the report.
“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.”
There have been about 40 gigawatts (GWs) of coal plant retirements since January 2010, representing approximately 12% of the US coal-fired capacity. Most of those closures are scheduled between 2012 and 2010.
Meanwhile, natural gas consumption by the electric power sector has risen an average of 4% annually for the past 10 years.
An example lies in the case of Southern Company, one of the nation’s most coal-intensive power producers. In 2012, the utility expects its fuel mix to include more natural gas than coal in 2012 for the first time in its 100-year history.
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 on the 2009 list. They are (from worst to best):
- West Virginia
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
For the full 2012 Benchmarking Air Emissions report: