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Shocker! A new carbon emissions study indicates that the wheels have come off the decarbonization train in the United States. And now for the good news...

Fossil Fuels

You’re Doing It Wrong! US Carbon Emissions (Probably) Spiked Up In 2018

Shocker! A new carbon emissions study indicates that the wheels have come off the decarbonization train in the United States. And now for the good news…

The Intertubes are practically jumping out of their pants with the latest news about US carbon emissions, and the news is not good. According to a newly released estimate from the Rhodium Group, the nation’s carbon profile spiked up sharply in 2018 instead of continuing a three-year downward trend.


I know, right? Shocker! Also you won’t guess what is pushing US carbon emissions skyward even though coal power plants are falling like dominoes.

Three guesses!

Guess Why US Carbon Emissions Zoomed Upwards Again

To be clear, the new Rhodium Group study is an estimate. When the dust settles, the picture for 2018 could turn out to be a little rosier. Or not, as the case may be.

Assuming that the estimate does hold water, it’s no big secret why carbon emissions spiked upwards.

If you guessed natural gas, natural gas, and natural gas, you were right. Here’s the money quote from Rhodium:

…Natural gas not only replaced most of the lost coal generation but also fed the vast majority of the load growth last year. Between January and October, US power companies added a greater share of gas capacity than the share of retired coal capacity, and twice as much gas went online as combined wind and solar capacity additions (including distributed solar) during that period.

Want more? Here ya go:

Natural gas-fired generation increased by 166 million kWh during the first ten months of the year. That’s three times the decline in coal generation and four times the combined growth of wind and solar.

So much for gas being the “cleaner” fuel!

The Carbon Emissions Whack-a-Mole

As for the overall findings, Rhodium does not mince words. The report looked at natural gas and oil consumption along with carbon emissions related to power generation and estimated an increase of 3.4% in 2018.

According to Rhodium, that’s the most significant uptick in recent years. The biggest one occurred when the economy revved up again in 2010, after the Great Recession.

Carbon emissions related to power generation alone rose by 1.9% in 2018, according to the study.

The transportation sector is also not off the hook when it comes to offsetting carbon emissions progress in one area with backsliding in another.

Rhodium notes that the transportation sector is still the nation’s single largest source of carbon emissions. They estimate that a slight drop in demand for gasoline in 2018 was more than offset by increased demand for diesel and jet fuels.

Rounding out the analysis, Rhodium notes that an unusually cold winter contributed to a spike in carbon emissions by the buildings and industrial sectors of the economy, but they suggest that if the US was making more progress on improving building energy efficiency, the cold weather would not have made such a big difference.

So, Now What?

If the new Rhodium analysis sounds like a sideways pitch for the nuclear energy industry, well kind of.

Here in the US, though, nuclear energy has a long hill to climb in terms of costs and ratepayer risks, as well as collateral damage to policy makers and politicians.

Renewables present a much less riskier proposition, and that’s where the smart money is.

It would be nice to head into 2019 with a running start on carbon emissions, but playing catch-up is within the realm of possibility.

Solar and onshore wind costs are still tumbling in the US. In some markets — both US and globally — renewables are already beating natural gas on costs as well as coal.

The mighty US offshore wind sector should finally hit stride within the next few years, which will help control carbon emissions along the power-sucking Atlantic seaboard.

As for transportation, one word: electric vehicles.

The diesel and jet fuel offset is concerning, but the long term picture could include replacing diesel with renewable hydrogen in heavy duty vehicles and seacraft, and petroleum with biofuel in aircraft.

Rhodium paints a dismal picture on the buildings and industrial sectors. Nevertheless, they are being addressed on two fronts. One is a new gas-to-electricity conversion campaign organized by the Rocky Mountain Institute. The organization expects to enlist appliance manufacturers and other commercial electricity stakeholders in the effort.

The other front is energy efficiency, which also includes appliance manufacturers as well as other building systems and industrial processes.

The US EPA has not been a reliable decarbonization partner under the Trump* Administration, to say the least, but the Department of Energy has kept up with a full suite of energy efficiency programs through the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Interestingly, DOE has not been affected by the government shutdown, and it won’t be. Yes, really. The agency’s budget was cemented in a “mini-bus” bill last September.

As with so many other important offices during Trump’s tenure, the bad news is that EERE has been under the helm of an acting director for the better part of two years.

The good news is, the US Senate finally voted to confirm the acting director — Daniel Simmons — to a permanent slot last week.

Oh wait, that’s also the bad news. In his previous career, the new permanent EERE chief gained his reputation as a fossil fuel lobbyist and climate change denier.

On the other hand, commercial energy efficiency stakeholders seem confident that Simmons will push forward with the agency’s energy efficiency programs for buildings and manufacturing.

Simmons’s tenure as acting chief also hasn’t stopped DOE from pressing forward with its renewable energy programs, including an ongoing grid modernization initiative that leans heavily on wind and solar integration, so there’s that. Go figure.

Anyways, CleanTechnica is reaching out to Rhodium for some insights on the direction of US energy policy in 2019, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo: Widows Creek Fossil Power Plant by Tennessee Valley Authority via, creative commons license.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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