EIA: U.S. Power Sector Carbon Emissions Reach 22-year Low in 2015

Credit: Data: Energy Information Administration

There’s some great news out of the Energy Information Administration (EIA): carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector—our country’s largest source of the pollution that’s driving climate change—fell significantly in 2015, reaching their lowest levels since 1993. Emissions in the power sector have been in rapid decline over the past decade, driven by a number of regulatory and market factors, including continually low natural gas prices, rapidly declining costs for wind and solar energy, and relatively flat electricity demand as federal and state energy efficiency programs have helped cut energy waste.

The Clean Power Plan (CPP) will reinforce and build on these existing market trends. The CPP relies on technologies and practices already employed by the power sector—for example, switching from coal to lower-emitting natural gas, and expanding our use of renewable energy—to set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from the electricity sector. Using 2012 as the baseline year, the CPP gradually phases in the emissions limits between 2022 and 2030, and is projected to result in emissions cuts of roughly 19% below 2012 levels by 2030. But since 2012, emissions from the power sector have fallen by over 5%. In other words, the power sector has already achieved over 25% of the cuts required by 2030 in the past three years alone, even though the emissions limits don’t start to phase in for another six years

That progress is not showing any signs of stopping—in fact, our transition to a clean energy future is expected to accelerate between now and 2022. In December, Congress passed multi-year extensions of tax credits for wind and solar technologies, providing important near-term certainty for the clean energy industry. The tax credit extensions, coupled with growing demand from state renewable portfolio standards and rapidly declining costs, are leading to consensus among a range of industry experts that the next five years will be ones of unprecedented growth in clean energy. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, projects that wind and solar capacity will grow by 59% and 233% from today’s levels, respectively, by the end of 2021. Recent reports from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Rhodium Group expect similar levels of growth.

Opponents of the Clean Power Plan continue to argue that the rule is “drastic” and that the emissions cuts required will harm economic growth. But 2015 emissions data serves as yet another data point that exposes the flaws in their arguments, clearly demonstrating that the market is already moving towards a cleaner grid. And since 1993—the last time power sector emissions were this low—U.S. GDP (real) has grown at a healthy clip of 2.5% on average.

The Supreme Court recently made the unfortunate and unprecedented decision to issue a stay of the Clean Power Plan, but many states and power companies have signaled that they’re still moving ahead towards a clean energy future, and NRDC is confident the rule will ultimately be upheld. The latest emissions data from EIA, along with projections from a range of industry experts, reaffirm that the emissions limits of the Clean Power Plan are readily achievable, and that the power sector will be even better positioned to meet the CPP goals than originally expected. The CPP will help accelerate the positive market trends towards a cleaner energy future, and our health and economy will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

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