Power Sector Carbon Index Highlights Falling Levels Of Carbon Pollution

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The latest report by the Power Sector Carbon Index highlights how far carbon emissions from the power generation sector of the US economy have fallen as the electrical grid continues to get greener, thanks to an increase in renewable energy and a decrease in the number of coal-powered plants involved in the energy mix. The report is based on data collected through the end of the third quarter of 2017, the latest information available.

carbon emissions from electricity sector
SourceL DOE

In 2005, each megawatt hour of electricity was responsible for 1,321 pounds of carbon dioxide. Today, the number is down to 967 pounds per megawatt hour, a reduction of more than 25%. The Power Sector Carbon Index is a joint creation of Carnegie Mellon University and Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS). Begun a year ago, it has recently been updated to permit regional analysis of the US market allowing for greater insight into the impact of regional trends on fuel types, usage, and emissions.

According to a recent press release, “[T]he index will begin to incorporate emissions data from other countries across North and South America. As the Index continues to expand, it will serve as a source of objective insight regarding emissions trends across the Americas for policy makers, regulators, utilities, industry analysts and the public.”

“The Carnegie Mellon Power Sector Carbon Index provides a snapshot of critical data regarding energy production and environmental performance,” said Costa Samaras, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “We’ve found this index to provide significant insight into trends in power generation and emissions. In particular, the data have shown that emissions intensity has fallen to the lowest level on record, as a combination of natural gas and renewable power have displaced more carbon intensive coal-fired power generation.”

Comparing data from 2017 to the same period in 2016, carbon emissions declined 5%. “The power industry has made significant progress in reducing emissions for over a decade, as new technology, state and federal policies and market forces have increased power generation from natural gas and renewables, and decreased power generation from coal. As this change in power continues, the Power Sector Carbon Index will not only report the results but also provide analysis of the underlying reasons for the changes we’re seeing,” says Paul Browning, President and CEO of MHPS Americas. “Our team at MHPS is proud to support this important work by Carnegie Mellon researchers.”

Here is a summary of the latest Power Sector Carbon Index findings as shown on its website:

  • The Power Sector Carbon Index was down by 5% in Q3 2017 when compared to Q3 2016.
  • Total electricity generation was down 5% in Q3 2017 when compared to Q3 2016.
  • Coal generation was down by 10% in Q3 2017 (346 million MWh) when compared to Q3 2016 (386 million MWh). Coal represented 30% of total generation in Q3 2017.
  • Carbon intensity of coal generation in Q3 2017 was about the same as in Q3 2016 (2,240 lb CO2 per MWh and 2,248 lb CO2 per MWh, respectively).
  • Natural gas generation was down by 7% in Q3 2017 (401 million MWh) when compared to Q3 2016 (432 million MWh). Natural gas represented 36% of total generation in Q3 2017.
  • Carbon intensity of natural gas generation was up 1% in Q3 2017 (944 lb CO2 per MWh) when compared to Q3 2016 (935 lb CO2 per MWh).
  • Renewable electricity generation was up by 10% in Q3 2017 (156 Million MWh) when compared to Q3 2016 (142 million MWh). Renewables represented 14% of total generation in Q3 2017.
  • Nuclear electricity generation was up by 2% in Q3 2017 (212 Million MWh) when compared to Q3 2016 (207 million MWh). Nuclear represented 19% of total generation in Q3 2017.
  • Total direct CO2 emissions from the power sector in Q3 2017 were 528 billion metric tons, down 10% from 584 billion metric tons in Q3 of 2016.

The second bullet point — about total electricity generation falling — is important. As we reported last week, some utility companies are beginning to think of charging electric cars as an important new market to offset decreasing demand for electricity. The findings of the Carnegie Mellon tracker about declining carbon emissions from power generation are similar to those reported by officials in the UK recently. Don’t look now, but the transition to clean electrical power has begun and is gaining momentum in many parts of the world.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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