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Carbon Emissions From Power Plants Hit 27-Year Low

As states begin the long task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants to comply with new federal climate policy, a 27-year low in carbon dioxide emissions earlier this year shows the U.S. may be heading toward meeting its emissions goals.

U.S. power plants emitted less carbon dioxide — 128 million metric tons — in April than at any point in since April 1988, according to new U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

Click image to enlarge. Credit: EIA

That continues a long-term trend of declining electric power sector carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. that began after they peaked at about 250 million metric tons in the summer of 2007. April is the month each year when power plants emit the least carbon dioxide because heating and cooling demand is very low in the early spring.

“April is the so-called shoulder season between heating load and air conditioning load,” EIA analyst John Cogan said.

The 27-year low in power plant carbon emissions comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the Clean Power Plan. The plan requires states to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants running on fossil fuels by generating more electricity from renewables and natural gas and by making buildings more energy efficient, among other measures.

The plan’s goal is to reduce those plants’ carbon emissions 32 percent by 2030. Coal-fired power plants are the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

April’s low emissions numbers happened because, for the first time in history, electricity production from natural gas surpassed electricity produced from coal, which produces greater than 70 percent more carbon emissions than natural gas when it is burned. That happened only for one month, but as more coal-fired power plants are retired because of environmental regulations and low natural gas prices, the EIA expects more and more electricity to be produced from natural gas. Electricity production from natural gas has tripled since April 1988.

Click image to enlarge. Credit: EIA

“I think it’s indicative of the transition that’s underway in the power sector,” said Dan Bakal, electric power program director at Ceres, a sustainability think tank that has researched each state’s preparations to comply with the federal climate policy. “The Clean Power Plan will solidify that kind of transition and accelerate it a little bit.”

Each passing month increases the probability that natural gas will once again surpass coal as the nation’s dominant fuel for electricity production, especially as more coal-fired power plants are retired, he said.

Alternative energy sources were also factors in the downward trend of carbon emissions this year, according to the EIA. Nuclear power generation was 3 percent greater during the first four months of this year over the previous year and renewable power production increased 2 percent during that time over the first four months of 2014.

Cogan said EIA’s long-term projections show much greater decarbonization of electricity nationwide.

“With the Clean Power Plan, that would continue that trend,” he said.

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