Coal’s Fall Drives GHG Cut in 2019, Gains May Be Short Term

Coal Retirements 2008 - 2028
Source: NRDC Coal Status Tracker, with data from U.S. EIA and S&P Global Market Intelligence. Projections, noted as hashed bars, also include proposed retirements from Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs).

There’s good, mixed, and, candidly, bad news about how much climate pollution the United States is contributing to our warming planet. Using new real-time data and independent analyses, we can begin to reveal the key energy and emissions trends from 2019—and what 2020 likely has in store—several months ahead of the official release of U.S. government data.

Here are some top line findings that emerge:

  • U.S. climate-warming pollution fell modestly in 2019, according to preliminary estimates from the private consultant Rhodium Group.
  • This decline followed a sharp uptick in carbon emissions in 2018, which had been a worrying reversal after years of moderate, but consistent, reductions.
  • Despite an overall reduction in greenhouse gases, it appears that non-CO2 emissions—such as methane, a more potent but shorter living GHG—are rising.
  • The U.S. may generate more power from renewables than coal annually in 2021, for the first time ever. 
  • Progress in the power sector has helped bring total climate-warming emissions back on the decline, but the United States is at huge risk of missing international climate targets.
  • To meet the Copenhagen Accord targets, the U.S. needs to cut greenhouse gas pollution by 5.3 percent in 2020—an (almost) unheard of feat.
  • To meet the Paris Accord target, the U.S. needs to reduce emissions about 3 percent annually over the next six years—significantly faster than the 0.9 percent average annual reduction achieved since 2005.

Let’s dig into what the data shows. Almost all emission reductions came from the power sector, which has been undergoing a relatively swift transition from coal-fired power to cleaner, and cheaper, alternatives like wind and solar energy.

Rhodium estimates that industry and buildings saw carbon pollution rise by 1 to 2 percent in 2019. The transportation sector—the largest contributor to climate change in the U.S.—saw emissions stabilize in 2019, after years of steady growth. And outside of carbon pollution, other greenhouse gas emissions—including those related to agriculture and oil and gas methane—are estimated to have increased by over 4 percent in 2019.

To meet our international climate commitments, the U.S. must look beyond the power sector. Serious and aggressive action must be taken at the federal, state, and local levels to improve energy efficiency across the economy, transition to cleaner and electric fuels in buildings and vehicles, and tackle non-carbon greenhouse gases like methane from oil and gas operations and potent climate-warming refrigerants like HFCs.  

The power sector continues to drive U.S. climate gains

Rhodium Group’s analysis estimates that power sector emissions—from generating and transmitting electricity created from burning coal and natural gas—declined by 10 percent between 2018 and 2019. This is the largest single-year decline in power sector carbon pollution since the federal government started reporting carbon emissions in 1973.

More than 60 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity retired in the last five years, equal to more than one-fourth of all coal plants operating in the U.S. today. Coal closures in 2019 hit some of the highest levels on record—with about 15 GW (according to NRDC’s tracking) coming offline over the course of the year. Many of the coal plants closing in the last year or two have been larger and newer than those that retired in or before 2015—with retired units almost three times the size and 10 years younger, on average, than earlier retirements.

Using U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) real-time electric grid monitor, NRDC tabulated the continental U.S electric mix for 2019. That shows that coal-fired generation fell by 18 percent year-over-year, hitting the lowest levels in 35 years. This is the largest single-year drop in coal generation ever recorded (e.g. since 1949). In total, coal provided 24 percent of all electricity in 2019; natural gas provided 37 percent; nuclear power 20 percent; renewable resources 17 percent, and the remaining 2 percent came from oil.

The U.S. also hit another milestone in 2019: in April, more electricity came from renewables (wind, water, and solar) than from coal for the entire month. This is the first month ever that renewables provided more electricity than coal in the U.S.  

Looking forward, EIA’s new projections estimate that renewables will provide more electricity than coal on an annual basis by 2021. That’s historic progress for clean energy.

Rhodium group estimates that reduced coal generation cut carbon pollution by 190 million metric tons in 2019. Increased natural gas generation, however, added another 40 million metric tons of carbon pollution in 2019, as another 15 GW of gas-fired capacity entered service.

Based on the EIA’s generator inventory, more than 75 percent of all power capacity expected to begin operations in 2020 will be sun- or wind-powered. The other quarter will be mainly gas-fired, with a handful of battery and hydro-powered additions as well. As a result of these new power plants, non-hydro renewable generation is expected to grow by 15 percent in 2020—the fastest rate in four years.

Annual wind and solar installations are also expected to reach record levels in 2020, adding 18.5 GW of wind power (surpassing the record set in 2012 of 13.2 GW and enough to power more than 6.5 million homes every year) and another 13.5 GW of utility-scale solar expected (surpassing the record set in 2016 of 8 GW and enough to power over 2.9 million homes every year).

At the same time, closures of older coal, gas, and nuclear plants are expected to continue through the new year. Coal-fired power plants are projected to make up more than half of all closures, mainly in just two states: Kentucky and Ohio. Another third of the closures, according to EIA, will be older gas-fired units, with most of the remainder nuclear powered.

Transportation still largest source of pollution, but emissions stalled in 2019

There was one other silver lining in this year’s report: the transportation sector, which is the largest source of emissions in the U.S., saw emissions decline by 0.3 percent between 2018 and 2019. This comes after years of rising emissions – and despite Americans driving more last year than they did in 2018. Improved fuel economy of our cars, which means we use less oil per mile driven, played a key role. However, these standards are under threat from the current administration.

The rest of the U.S. economy is stalled or moving backwards on climate—largely due to increased gas use

The drop in carbon pollution in the power sector masked a troubling rise in other emissions. Rhodium Group estimates that emissions in buildings—those from directly burning fuels to heat our homes and commercial spaces, as well as water heaters and stovetops—rose by about 2 percent (on top of the 4.5 percent increase in 2018). This increase in emissions is tied to an increased use of gas – mainly in residential buildings—with initial government estimates indicating a little more than a 1 percent increase in residential gas use in 2019. Gas use also rose in industry, with an estimated 7 percent increase in gas consumption in 2019. This contributed to the 0.6 percent increase in industrial emissions projected by Rhodium Group.

The increasing reliance and use of gas across the U.S. economy—in power plants, buildings, and industrial processes—is driven, in part, by a rise in domestic gas production and related slump in prices. U.S. dry natural gas production set a new record in 2019, averaging 92.0 billion cubic feet per day, a 10 percent increase from 2018’s record-breaking levels. This growth in natural gas production greatly exceeded domestic needs, which has had rippling effects across the domestic and global economy. U.S. gas prices hit their lowest levels in three years, global corporate defaults rose to the second-highest levels since 2009 (driven by oil & gas defaults), and U.S. net exports of gas increased by 165 percent from 2018 levels.

As supply has significantly outpaced demand—both here and abroad—gas prices have plummeted. One result: oil and gas producers have little incentive to curb leakage. That propelled a startling rise in flaring, where unwanted or excess methane gas is burned off into the atmosphere. Almost 7,000 permits for flaring were approved in Texas alone in 2019—a 40-fold increase from the 158 permits granted in the state a decade ago. Texas oil & gas producers flared enough gas in 2018 to fuel every household furnace, stove, and water heater in the state.

This waste also comes with a myriad of public health and climate issues. Flaring is a significant contributor to climate change. It generates noise, heat, and other local nuisances for populations nearby. Rhodium estimates that emissions from “other sectors”—including oil & gas methane, waste, and agriculture—rose 4.4 percent in 2019—the largest increase of any sector analyzed by Rhodium.

2019 saw both incredible progress and troubling obstacles to achieving a climate safe future. The power sector accelerated towards a clean future—with some of the largest drops in both coal and carbon pollution seen in U.S. history—and the next few years look even brighter, as wind and solar are posed for unprecedented growth across the nation. However, outside of the power sector, the story is much less optimistic. Climate-warming emissions in other areas of the economy are rising, in tandem with increasing U.S. oil and gas production and consumption. A clean energy future is possible, but we’ve got a long way to go and must get started as soon as possible.