For the past 40 years, the electricity sector of the US economy has been the biggest source of carbon emissions. But according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, that distinction now belongs to transportation — automobiles, trucks, airplanes, and ships.
Don’t assume that means transportation emissions have risen dramatically recently. They have not. According to the US Energy Information Agency, emissions from transportation have ratcheted up slowly over the past 40 years as the total number of vehicles on the road and the average number of miles driven increased. The Great Recession put a dent in that, but emissions have been rising again as the economy has recovered. The factor most responsible for the shift is on the other side (as the graph above shows) — the dramatic decline in the number of coal power plants in operation in America over the past 10 years being the main reason for the drop in the electricity sector’s emissions.
The trend toward a greener utility grid has occurred because of two factors — a switch to natural gas instead of coal and the growing popularity of renewable energy. In both cases, economics are the key. Utility companies are interested in maximizing profits. Paying less to generate the electricity they sell helps their bottom line.
Lower carbon dioxide and particulate levels in the atmosphere have many health advantages for local communities as well, especially when it comes to the health of those who live closest to the sources of pollution. Lower emissions result in decreases in respiratory and cardiac disease.
The data from US EIA show that total emissions from the transportation sector have been accelerating since 2012, mostly because of America’s love affair with the biggest, thirstiest vehicles available. The so-called Trump administration* is pushing hard to roll back the fuel economy and emissions standards enacted during the Obama years. But the switchover to electric vehicles has begun and it appears nothing will stop it, especially as American car companies must face the reality of competing in foreign markets where the rules are more rigorous (like China and Europe).
BNEF projects electrics — which will be powered by electricity derived from low- or zero-carbon sources — will be cheaper than conventional cars by the middle of the next decade. Once that happens, EVs are expected to begin outselling gas- and diesel-powered cars. But the big news is in trucking, where Tesla and several other manufacturers are racing to bring electrified vehicles to market.
Electric buses, electric delivery vans, electric tractor trailers, and electric trash-hauling vehicles are just now coming to market. In most cases, they are already cheaper to operate than their diesel-powered cousins. Once again, economics will be the key. Fleet operators are motivated by cost savings of as little as a penny or two per miles. Multiplied by millions of miles, those savings can have a dramatic impact on the bottom line.
The changeover is coming and the pace of change is accelerating. One day soon we will look around to find the majority of vehicles are EVs, powered by an electrical grid that is getting greener all the time.
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