It has been another consecutive year of declining climate and air pollution from the electric power sector, as confirmed in the annual Benchmarking Air Emissions report published by M.J. Bradley & Associates. While the Trump administration attempts to stall and reverse clean energy progress in the U.S., there is no escaping that renewable energy is outcompeting inefficient and polluting fossil fuel-fired plants. As a result, Americans are enjoying the benefits of reduced climate pollution including cleaner air and improved public health, all while the economy remains strong and growing.
Climate and Air Pollution Continuing to Trend Lower
The U.S. power sector has made large strides over the past decade in reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution that drives climate change, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOX) and Mercury (Hg). As shown in the chart below, CO2 emissions have dropped 24 percent between 2005 and 2017. The power sector has also reduced its emissions of SO2 and NOx by 91 and 82 percent, respectively, in the past 25 years. And since 2000, mercury emissions from power plants have been reduced by 86 percent, largely due to the 2015 promulgation of the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards.
Clean Energy Leadership is a Key Driver
A combination of market forces, pollution standards and state and local energy efficiency and renewable policies are primarily responsible for the downward emissions trends. Power companies that have announced commitments to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are also at the forefront. Xcel Energy Colorado recently filed an ambitious new power plan that would increase renewable energy sources to 55 percent of its electricity portfolio and cut carbon emissions in half by 2026. These actions will also reduce air pollution from Xcel Colorado’s fleet. Florida Power & Light (FP&L), has reached a new milestone in Putnam County, Florida, with a 578-acre, 74.5 MW solar project that can supply enough energy to power nearly 15,000 homes. FP&L’s investments do not end there. It has also purchased nearly 1,300 acres for a new solar project in Palm Beach County.
These commitments make economic sense because the costs of wind and solar technologies have fallen dramatically in recent years. In many places, these zero emissions resources are out-competing fossil fuel-based electricity generation. According to the investment firm Lazard, the cost of generating power from new wind and solar projects has declined by 67 percent and 86 percent, respectively, since 2009. In the past two years alone, according to the same analysis, the cost of wind and solar power has fallen by 17 percent and 22 percent, respectively. The average price of wind power fell to an all-time low of just $20 per megawatt-hour in 2015 and remained at that level in 2016. In 2017, the Department of Energy announced that the solar industry had hit the Sunshot target for utility-scale projects – an installation cost of $1 per watt – three years ahead of schedule.
In addition, states are strengthening their renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) to require a greater amount of generation from non-emitting sources.
The shift away from polluting coal generation is becoming more and more evident as a consequence. In 2006, coal accounted for 49 percent of electric power production. By 2016, coal’s market share of electric power production had dropped to 30 percent, with analysts projecting further deterioration. Meanwhile, in 2016, 13.5 percent of the United States energy came from renewable sources and in just one year that number has risen to above 17 percent. Various perspectives of the long term offered by CERES and NRDC suggest that as the cost of renewables continues to decline and more and more power companies invest, the downward emissions trajectory is widely expected to extend. NRDC expects renewables, including wind, solar, hydro and geothermal, to reach 80 percent of the electricity mix by 2050.
Clean Energy is Growing the Economy
Between 2005 and 2017, electric sector CO2 emissions dropped by 24 percent while GDP grew by 20 percent.
Renewable technology development in recent years and the resulting cost declines have bolstered the U.S. clean energy economy. In early 2016, in expressing support for the Paris Agreement, more than 1,000 U.S.-based companies and investors, representing over $1.2 trillion in revenues, declared that “failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.” Moreover, the energy efficiency industry now supports 2.2 million jobs, and there are over 260,000 jobs in the solar industry, as well as over 100,000 jobs in the wind industry. power producers to consider these technologies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently estimated that the employment categories of solar panel installer and wind turbine technician would be the fastest growing jobs in the economy over the next decade.
This year’s benchmarking data reaffirms the downward path of climate and air pollution in the power sector. And for another consecutive year, it shows that a cleaner electricity sector can support a strong and growing economy.
Still, we cannot rely on market forces alone to reach long term climate and energy goals. EIA projects in its 2018 national energy forecast that power sector emissions will be 1,777 million metric tonnes in 2050, nowhere near the level necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In its report documenting how the United States could achieve is 2050 climate targets, the Obama White House identifies “near-complete decarbonization of electricity” as “perhaps the most pivotal element to achieving the [Mid-Century Strategy] vision.”
All of the progress that has been documented in this benchmarking analysis as well as various other sources mean that the U.S. electricity sector would be poised to achieve strong climate and pollution standards to even further benefit Americans. Rather than obscuring the health and climate protections that pollution standards put in place, the administration should recognize the unique opportunity in these electricity sector trends and strengthen standards to maximize benefits for all Americans.
This post co-authored by my summer colleague, Gabe Tishman.