Power sector carbon carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell 10 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to a recently issued report.
The report, Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States, was written by M. J. Bradley & Associates, and issued by Ceres, Bank of America, Entergy, Exelon, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The CO2 emissions decline documented in the report is the largest year-over-year decrease since the report was first released in 1997.
The benchmarking analysis examines and compares key air pollutant emissions from the 100 largest U.S. power producers, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), CO2, and mercury. The U.S.’ 100 largest power producers accounted for more than 80 percent of the sector’s total generation in 2020. The analysis uses publicly reported generation and emissions data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The coronavirus pandemic may have been a contributing factor, but the drop in emissions is part of a long-term trend fueled by increased renewables generation and coal-to-gas transitions, according to the Ceres report.
“Industry-wide, the pace of decarbonization is picking up, and as renewables come online to displace fossil fuels, we have the opportunity to accelerate that trend,” Dan Bakal, senior director for electric power at Ceres, said in a statement. “The growth in renewables has allowed us to separate economic growth from emissions, and this year represents one of the most dramatic decoupling points that we have seen.”
Between 2000 and 2020, power sector CO2 emissions decreased 37 percent while gross domestic product (GDP) grew 40 percent and, over the same period, generation from non-hydro renewables more than doubled, the Ceres report noted.
The report also noted that power sector CO2 emissions in 2020 were roughly 40 percent below the industry’s 2007 peak. Power sector emissions of SO2 and NOx emissions have decreased 93 percent and 85 percent from 2000 levels, respectively, the report found. And power plant mercury emissions have decreased 92 percent since 2000.
The Ceres report also noted that the share of power produced by non-hydro renewables jumped 20 percent from 2019 levels, and the share from coal decreased by roughly 17 percent. Meanwhile, natural gas, for the fifth year in a row, was the leading source of electricity generation at 40 percent, followed by nuclear power at 20 percent. Power from non-hydro renewable sources made up 11 percent of total U.S. generation in 2020, of which 20 percent came from solar power, 76 percent from wind, and 4 percent from geothermal sources, the report said.
Meanwhile, overall CO2 emissions from energy consumption fell to the lowest level since 1983, according to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Energy Review, which surveys the consumption of primary energy sources.
The 4.6 billion metric tons (Bmt) of CO2 emitted in 2020 was an 11 percent decrease from 2019, the largest annual decrease on record, the EIA said.
In 2020, natural gas consumption accounted for 1.7 billion metric tons (Bmt) of CO2 emissions, or about 36 percent of the total, the fuel’s largest share on record, the EIA said. About 38 percent of CO2 emissions from natural gas in 2020 came from the electric power sector and 32 percent from the industrial sector, EIA said.
Coal consumption accounted for 0.9 Bmt of CO2 emissions, or about 19 percent of total 2020 CO2 emissions, which is both the lowest total amount and the lowest share since EIA began its annual data series in 1973, the agency said, adding that about 90 percent of CO2 emissions from coal in 2020 were from the electric power sector. Coal accounted for 54 percent of electric power CO2 emissions in 2020, even though the fuel accounted for 19 percent of electricity generation last year, EIA said.
“The power sector continues its march away from fossil fuels, replacing them with clean sources like wind and solar. But there is still a ways to go,” Starla Yeh, director of the policy analysis group in the climate and clean energy program at NRDC, said in a statement. “We’ll need to at least double the share of clean electricity in the generation mix by 2030 to meet the administration’s goals for the sector of 80 percent clean by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035.”
In April, President Joe Biden announced a nationwide goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.