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Published on July 20th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


US Leading the World in CO2 Emissions Cuts? Will It Continue?

July 20th, 2012 by  

There’s been a bit of chatter this week about the US leading the world in CO2 emissions reductions. David Roberts of Grist has a great piece on why almost nobody is talking about it, which includes how and why it’s happening.

One of our readers (who I hadn’t met before) actually dropped me a note the other day asking me if the news was legit and if it was really mostly from an increase in natural gas production.

I ended up writing a reply that I thought made for a good post. So I’m putting most of that here, with some additional comments….

Yes, but…

Yes, CO2 emissions in the US have dropped “a lot” (7.7% since 2006, and 1.9% last year alone). The International Energy Agency writes, “US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.”

Some of the key reasons for that are the economic downturn, natural gas replacing coal on the electric grid at a somewhat fast past, and perhaps La Niña (which results in a drop in the use of energy-intensive air conditioning).

Electricity use in the US. (Source: CIA World Factbook)

But, that was the past, what about the present and the future?

With the economy picking up, the heat rising (especially with a transition from La Niña to El Niño), I’m afraid this trend will slow or reverse this year.

On the natural gas topic: natural gas is, by most studies, significantly better than coal. But there are studies that have found we aren’t adequately accounting for leakage rates. Though, the latest study I’ve seen on the matter disagrees. It’s hard to know.

I’m not really a big fan of natural gas — think it won’t do enough and we’d be much better off putting a price on carbon and putting more into renewables. But the fact of the matter is that natural gas (artificially or not) is basically as cheap as any other major energy source these days (see the LCOE tab). So, until something changes, it’s going to continue its rapid growth.

So, I can only hope the natural gas supporters and the studies finding it isn’t as bad as coal are at least right. But that really doesn’t solve the problem that it’s still not considered to be enough….

Adding on to all that, there are some more things to consider. Coal is going out because of two things: 1) better air, climate, and water regulations from the EPA, and 2) an increasingly high cost relative to its competitors. Natural gas is one of those competitors, but so are increasingly cheap solar and wind power.

What if…

NREL’s new tool for comparing LCOE is great (for the uninitiated, LCOE is essentially the standard format for comparing the cost of electricity of different energy sources), but it’s a bit biased against solar and wind. Why? It’s including prices for old and new technology, while new solar and wind technology costs have dropped hugely in the past year alone. Not so for their competitors.

Nonetheless, it shows wind as highly competitive — median of $0.05/kWh, the same as natural gas combined cycle, and only higher than hydropower ($0.03/kWh).

Solar is higher, but rooftop solar competes with the price of retail electricity. And it has already hit grid parity in some regions.

Now, as stated above, many have hinted that natural gas prices are artificially low, that it’s essentially a fracking Ponzi scheme. That argument looks pretty convincing to me. At the very least, as one CleanTechnica reader and commenter (David Fuchs of the Hephaestus Project) recently noted, “While natural gas prices are falling due to production, there is a current lower limit of 4 cents a kwh. The lower limit is due to the cost of delivery, drilling, etc. No new technologies are on the horizon that will bring that price down.” The fact that land and “soft” costs don’t add up to more than $0.05/kWh today is already a bit surprising to me, but this low cost seems to be about as low as it can go, and hardly beats wind power in many locations.

The point I’m taking awhile to get to is this: what if natural gas wasn’t exceedingly low? My guess is that we’d have a lot more wind power and a lot more rooftop solar power. Would it have replaced coal as much as natural gas has? I don’t know. In the end, did we get a win with low natural gas prices and a cut in emissions? I don’t know — I can only hope so.

Here’s another big “what if” is about the future: As noted above, natural gas can’t go much lower. But renewable energy can, because its fuel costs are zilch, and a lot of the cost is still in the technology, which can become much more efficient. Here are some more apt comments from that reader mentioned above:

On the horizon for solar PV are more efficient cells.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Efficiency_chart_rev_05-2012.png  Which will lower the cost of solar.

For wind there are larger windmills and ocean based both of which will reduce the cost per kwh further.

10-12 years in the future we have nanotechnology. At which time the cost of solar will fall rapidly and so will the cost of energy storage.

By 2030 the entire fossil fuel industry will be on its death bed as new technologies make the old way of generating energy obsolete.

Furthermore, high “soft” costs from a nascent solar industry are being chipped away at fast, further bringing down solar costs.

So, here’s hoping that renewable energy grows fast enough to increase emissions reductions. And let’s hope staggering heat waves and drought wake people up to the threat of global warming.

Oh yeah, and if we simply had a price on carbon that made the cost of electricity from coal and natural gas reflect their true costs (or at least get somewhere closer to them), what a different story it would be today! (15% reductions since 2006? 20%?)

And what a different story it could be tomorrow!


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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

  • Solar_nick

    La Nina intensifies drought in the SW US and as a result higher temperatures throughout the central US and Midwest. Less air conditioner use hardly seems likely, but reduced heating needs in the winter could be.

    • El Nino, generally, raises temperatures. I’m willing to look at more info, but do you have something that shows the net effect of La Nina in the US is more warming? I haven’t seen that..

      • Bob_Wallace

        La Nina does seem to increase the probability of droughts. Then…

        “Droughts such as the one currently gripping a majority of the U.S. may dramatically increase the odds of extremely hot days, a new study found .

        The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
        explores a dynamic that is playing out right now across the country, particularly in the Great Plains, where the severe drought is priming the atmosphere in favor of an above-average number of extremely hot days.

        This occurs because of feedbacks between the ground and the air: as the soil and vegetation dry, more of the sun’s energy is able to go into heating the air directly, rather than going into evaporating moisture from plants and the soil.”

  • AOK

    Good article.  Thanks!

  • Anne

    Energy consumption in the US is mindboggling. So there is a lot of low hanging fruit. Simply trading in your V8 truck for a European or Japanese 4 cylinder car is an easy step that most other countries can not do. They’ll have to buy relatively expensive hybrids. That is just one example, but surely there are more. Most other countries have focused on energy efficiency for much longer and are suffering the law of diminishing returns.

    Just my 2c.

    • Bob_Wallace


      11% of residential and 13%(?) of commercial electricity used goes to lighting.  

      LEDs/CFLs use about 25% as much electricity per lumen as do incandescent bulbs.  And incandescent bulbs generally burn out quickly, which will lead to a quick changeover.

    • Ross

      There does seem to be the beginnings of a convergence. 

      Ford are going to offer their new 3-cylinder petrol engine in the US as well as Europe. That gets a respectable 125 horsepower and does 49 miles per US gallon.

      With any luck we won’t be able to scoff at the inefficient US motors for too much longer.

      • Bob_Wallace

        GM was in the process of bringing eight of their more efficient European models to the US when things crashed back in 2008.

        There will still be more inefficiencies in the US market for a while due to demand for larger vehicles.  But we’re heading down over the long run.  The new efficiencies that PBO negotiated with the car companies takes care of that.

        And in order to meet fleet efficiency levels manufacturers are pretty much produce some very efficient (EV/PHEV) models to offset the larger vehicles they sell.

        We should see some PHEV pickups before long.  A 40 mile range PHEV would work great for a lot of folks.  Even those who drive to a work site are likely to have a place to plug in and double their daily electricity only range.

        • Ross

          This is going to be risky – suggesting a new tax.

          In Europe motor/road taxes on vehicles are annual and based on the size/how much CO2 the car generates. As far as I can tell that isn’t the case in the US. If motor use taxes were linked to the CO2 emissions that could encourage more people to switch.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Our fuel taxes are on a ‘per gallon’ basis.  That makes them a size/CO2 tax.

            We are extremely unlikely to see a new tax on fuel/emissions in the next few years.  New taxes have become the sort of third rail you don’t want to touch like Social Security is.

            What is most likely is that we can get increased subsidies for electrics and renewables that help bring their prices down quicker.  

            Only when the US population gets much more concerned about global warming will voters tolerate a carbon price of some sort.  That would be unlikely in the near future.  Perhaps 3-4 more years of extreme weather and the cardiac arrest of some of the most extreme deniers and “shrink the government” folks.

          • Ross

            I suppose the first success to notch up is getting the fuel efficient engines available in the first place. At least this problem doesn’t exist with EVs.

    • Very good 2 c. Wish i had thought of noting that in the piece.

      Great additional points.

  • Eduardo Vargas

    Earlier this year we had a report on coal generation dropping this year by 16%. US emissions might continue to drop this year

    • Bob_Wallace

      Pretty certain to happen.  In 2011 we got 42.2% of our electricity from coal.  

      First quarter 2012 coal was down to 36% (down 21%? from first quarter 2011).  Prelim reports I’ve seen is that second quarter coal was around 32%.Helping, our miles-driven total doesn’t seem to be going up rapidly.

      • RobS

        Whilst natural gas is not ideal or as good as many think, I still think the transition is well worth it for 2 reasons. First is that it is certainly better then the coal it is replacing, particularly the oldest, least efficient coal plants which are being retired actively. Second is that a predominantly gas grid is far easier to integrate high levels of renewable generation into then a predominant coal grid, gas acts as a far more dispatchable source of power capable of far more rapid changes then coal plants which take the better part of a day to warm up or cool down, meaning that if your backup to an intermittent renewable is coal then you have to burn coal regardless in anticipation of supply interruptions. Eventually grid storage will serve this function but the technology is in its infancy and costs remain astronomical, natural gas therefore provides the best bridging fuel.

    • True.

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