Forbes: Coal-Fired Carbon Emissions Fall As Transition To Cleaner Energy Accelerates
It’s been a long hot summer of cataclysmic environmental events – drought, derecho, half of India in the dark – but here’s some good news: Thanks to cheap natural gas and a boom in renewable energy, the U.S. is accelerating a shift away from coal-fired power plants, resulting in falling emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants, according to a report released Tuesday.
The annual study of the emissions of the U.S.’s 100 biggest power producers – which generate 86% of the nation’s electricity, including 90% of its coal-fired power, was conducted by a group that includes energy producers Entergy, Exelon and Tenaska as well as Bank of America, the Natural Resources Defense Council and sustainable investing advocate Ceres in collaboration with consultant M.J. Bradley & Associates.
“This is an historic transition for the electric power industry,” Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres (and a Forbes contributor), said in a statement. “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.”
In fact, the U.S. hit a milestone in April of this year when government data showed that natural gas-fired power plants supplied as much electricity to the nation as coal-fired plants for the first time. Each generated 32% of the U.S. electricity demand that month. (The balance was produced by nuclear, hydropower and other renewables as well as oil.)
NextEra Energy Resources is the U.S.’s third-largest power producer but now generates 58% of its electricity from natural gas, 23% from nuclear and 14% from wind.
The report analyzed data for 2010 and found in that year that emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide were 68% lower than in 1990 and had fallen 32% and 31% respectively just since 2008.
Carbon dioxide emissions fell 4% in that time, thanks largely to the recession, and are expected to have dropped another 5% in 2011 as more coal-fired plants go offline. (Nevertheless, emissions of the planet-warming greenhouse gas remain 24% higher than in 1990.)
Utilities have also been pumping more money into energy efficiency programs, increasing investment in those efforts by 26% between 2010 and 2011, the report’s authors write.
Renewable energy production (excluding hydro power), meanwhile, more than doubled between 2004 and 2011 thought it still accounts for just under 5% of total electricity generation.
But depending on the region, such as in wind-rich Western states, renewable energy can serve a big chunk of demand.
“Wind energy, in particular, has been rapidly expanding over the past several years,” the report states. “Xcel Energy, for example, reported greater than 50% of its total Colorado load being served by wind in early 2012.”