New analysis shows momentum building to decarbonize the power sectorCeres
Before the pandemic, power sector emissions fell eight percent as the economy grew
Coal generation continued to decline as renewable energy expanded and more corporations committed to net-zero carbon emission goals
The U.S. power sector made significant progress in the transition away from coal in 2019, driving substantial reductions in pollution from the power sector, according to a new analysis released today.
The analysis, Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States, examines and compares key air pollutant emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and mercury from the 100 largest U.S. power producers, highlighting environmental performance and progress across the sector. It found that power sector CO2 emissions decreased 8 percent between 2018 and 2019, while SO2 and NOx emissions decreased 23 percent and 14 percent, respectively. During that time, the Gross Domestic Product rose 2.3 percent.
From 2000 to 2019, CO2 emissions decreased 28 percent while GDP grew 45 percent. Over the same period, generation from renewables doubled, further clarifying that with the right generation mix, reduced emissions and economic growth can go hand-in-hand.
“It is encouraging to see that our analysis shows a substantial drop in carbon emissions in 2019, particularly at a time when the economy was strong,” said Dan Bakal, senior director of electric power at Ceres. “While experts expect an even more dramatic plunge in 2020 due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be critical to ensure we continue the momentum in decarbonizing the power sector. Utilities should deploy zero-carbon resources and electrify other sectors in order to accelerate the pace of decarbonization as the economy recovers and energy demand increases.”
As the analysis notes, the drop in emissions, coupled with a rise in economic activity, can be attributed to the continued decline of generation from coal and the transition to lower- and zero-emissions power sources. In 2019, zero-carbon resources generated 36 percent of U.S. electricity, making it the second-leading source of power generation after natural gas. Of the zero-carbon resources, nuclear made up 55 percent, renewables 26 percent and hydro 19 percent. Non-hydro renewable generation, which includes wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass, has more than doubled since 2000. Together, these sources accounted for 9 percent of the sector’s electricity production in 2019.
Other major findings include:
- In 2019, power plant SO2 and NOx emissions were 94 percent and 86 percent lower, respectively, than they were in 1990 when Congress passed major amendments to the Clean Air Act.
- In 2019, power plant CO2 emissions were 11 percent lower than 1990 levels, and about 30 percent lower than their peak in 2007.
- Mercury air emissions from power plants (as reported to the TRI database) have decreased 90 percent since 2000.
- Nuclear plants accounted for 19 percent of total U.S. power generation, while hydroelectric resources accounted for 7 percent, and oil-fired resources fewer than 1 percent. Non-hydroelectric renewables: wind, solar, and geothermal, accounted for 9 percent of the total.
- Other fuel sources such as biomass, municipal solid waste, tire-derived fuel, manufactured and waste gases, etc., accounted for 2 percent, a significant shift from the generation mix a decade ago. In 2006, coal accounted for 49 percent of power production, while natural gas generated only 20 percent.
Increased ambition from power sector companies is critical to decarbonization, and to succeed in tackling the broader issues relating to the climate crisis. Some of the highest emitting power companies have recently made commitments to reduce their emissions to net-zero by 2050. Over the past two years Southern Company, Xcel, Duke, Dominion, NRG, CMS, DTE, and APS have all committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Entergy has been an industry leader in driving voluntary emissions reductions for nearly two decades,” said Mike Twomey, Entergy’s senior vice president of federal policy, regulatory and government affairs. “We are on track to meeting our 2030 climate commitment by transforming our generation portfolio to cleaner resources and investing in our utility-owned nuclear facilities. And we are uniquely positioned to partner with our customers on beneficial electrification opportunities, delivering sustainable, clean-energy solutions that benefit all our stakeholders.”
“This latest Benchmarking Air Emission report continues to demonstrate the critical role of existing low-carbon resources, including nuclear, and it quantifies the extent of air pollution in the U.S. that continues to disproportionately impact the health of urban and low-income communities. Focusing on maintaining and expanding zero-emission energy sources, while electrifying the economy, needs to be a national priority for realizing a sustainable future” said Exelon Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Chief Innovation and Sustainability Officer Chris Gould. “As a leading producer of zero-emitting electricity, Exelon continues to work with policymakers and our communities to drive further progress.”
“Tenaska is proud to be a part of the power sector’s continued emissions decline and its leading position in emissions improvement across all sectors of the nation’s economy,” said Larry Carlson, Tenaska’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs.
“The downward trend of power sector emissions continues, to the benefit of all Americans. Our air has been steadily getting cleaner, making it easier to breathe, while our economy has been flourishing,” said Starla Yeh, Director of the Policy Analysis Group of the Climate and Clean Energy program at NRDC. “By further expanding renewable energy, improving energy efficiency and supporting innovation, our economy can recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and achieve a cleaner, more prosperous future. We hope the electricity sector continues its progress toward reducing climate pollution and cleaning up the air as it powers our homes and businesses, and that other sectors like transportation and industry quickly follow suit.”
The benchmarking analysis released today is the 16th edition of the analysis released since 1997. The analysis is a collaborative effort between Ceres; Bank of America; power producers Entergy, Exelon, and Tenaska; and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It is authored by M. J. Bradley & Associates.
The analysis is based on publicly reported generation and emissions data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also provides detailed fuel mix information for all of the producers — including their share of fossil fuel, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable sources used to generate electricity.
The full analysis can be accessed here.
Explore analysis data and maps using an interactive dashboard here.All Press Releases