Revolution in Progress: US Emissions at Lowest Since 1994

February 4, 2013


OK, we can argue about Natural gas as being totally good news. I’m not convinced that “lower emissions” takes into account possible methane leaks from natural gas fracking fields. But my take-away here is that transformation is happening now, efficiency is up, renewable prices are down, coal, in the US at least, is in full retreat.


America’s carbon dioxide emissions last year fell to their lowest levels since 1994, according to a new report.

Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 13% in the past five years, because of new energy-saving technologies and a doubling in the take-up ofrenewable energythe report compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) said.

The reduction in climate pollution – even as Congress failed to act on climate change – brings America more than halfway towards Barack Obama’s target of cutting emissions by 17% from 2005 levels over the next decade, the Bloomberg analysts said.

By the end of last year, America’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions had fallen 10.7% from the 2005 baselines.

That drop puts Obama in a better position to defend his environmental achievements, which have often gone overlooked in the bitter rows over climate science.

It may also buoy up America’s standing in the global climate negotiations.


As described by Bloomberg, the US is in the throes of a major shift in energy production. Coal fell to just 18.1% of America’s energy mix last year, down from 22.5% in 2007. Oil use also declined.

The explosion of natural gas production, thanks to fracking, filled much of the gap. America got 31% of its electricity from gas-fired power plants last year.

But the report found steadily expanding installation of wind, solar, hydro and geothermal energy. Renewables represented the largest single source of new growth last year, reaching $44bn in 2012, the report said, the report said.

Over the same time span, total energy use fell since 2007, by 6.4%, the report said. Most of the emissions cuts were due to installing more efficient heating and cooling systems in commercial building.

Other cuts in emission came from transport, with 488,000 Americans last year opting for hybrid and plug-in vehicles.

More bullets from Bloomberg:

 ● The levelized costs of electricity for renewable technologies have plummeted. For example, the cost of electricity generated by average large solar power plants has fallen from $0.31 per kilowatt-hour in 2009 to $0.14 per kilowatt-hour in 2012, according to our global benchmarking analysis based on already financed projects from around the world. (These figures exclude the effect of tax credits and other incentives, which would bring those costs down even lower.) Over the same period, the cost of power from a typical large wind farm has fallen from $0.09 in 2009 to $0.08 per kilowatt-hour.

Energy efficiency is making its mark on the grid and on buildings. Since 1980, energy intensity of commercial buildings has decreased by over 40%, propelled by increasingly sophisticated approaches to financing for energy efficiency retrofits, as well as by standards, such as those that apply to heating and cooling units and to thermal performance (ie, insulation). Overall, US utility budgets for energy efficiency reached $7bn in 2011 (the latest available date for which data exists). Demand response capacity, which typically involves the curtailment of electricity consumption at times of peak usage, has grown by more than 250% between 2006 and 2011, allowing major power consumers such as manufacturers to cut their energy costs and utilities to scale back production from some of the costliest power plants. Some 46m smart meters have been deployed in the US, while spending on smart grid roll-outs hit $4.3bn in 2012, up from $1.3bn in 2008.

Policy is potent. Though the levelized costs of electricity of many renewable generation technologies have fallen drastically, most of these technologies still rely on incentives to compete. State-level mandates have been important drivers for renewable growth in the US, though in the case of most states, quotas for the next several years have already been satisfied. Policy measures have also helped further the cause of energy efficiency: Energy Star-certified commercial building floor space has increased by 139% from 2008 to 2012, and the stringency of building air conditioning efficiency standards has increased by up to 34% since 2005. There are, however, some clean energy technologies which are ready (or on the brink of being ready) to operate in the marketplace without any incentives or policy directives at all.


25 Responses to “Revolution in Progress: US Emissions at Lowest Since 1994”

  1. Wonderful to read some genuine good news. I fervently hope that 2013 is the year that, in hindsight, will be seen as the year that the world pulled back from the brink.

    • pappagaia Says:

      I am sorry to say that this “low level” of emissions come to late. The carbon civilaization has stuffed the biospere so much that we already have passed several tippingpoints that will drive life on the planet to extinction. The only way to stop this process is to collaps industrial carbon civilization. We should focus on development that reinforce the biological processes of planet Gaia. We should invest in processes that increase living plants capturing of carbon. We have to support life! We have to live in symbiosis with all the complicated web of life.

  2. witsendnj Says:

    This looks like a commercial for natural gas, and it furthermore it doesn’t take into account that the US has outsourced much of its manufacturing (and jobs) – and what the industry and shipping emissions would be of goods we import:

    And then there’s the fact that the sinks (oceans and forests!) are losing their capacity to absorb CO2 (because they’re dying!):

    In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

    • greenman3610 Says:

      the situation is bad, but not hopeless.
      I’m not blind to the influence of the natural gas industry – but the headline to me is that efficiency and renewables are a rising tide.
      I don’t believe that natural gas prices will be as stable as most projections say, and at the same time, renewables will continue to drop in price indefinitely.

  3. jasonpettitt Says:

    The big EU economies have all had some success reducing CO2 emissions by switching to Gas (following Kyoto), so it seems churlish to deny the US the same. Renewables are, in my considered opinion, absolutely my favouritest tech by a country mile – but that doesn’t mean that Gas or even (close your eyes Peter) Nuclear aren’t at very least better than coal.

    But of course the details count.

    Like the EU some of those gains in carbon reductions are going to be due to outsourcing production to China where emissions are growing quickly, and of course the boom/bust business cycle.

    There’s also a particular issue with Gas in the US, where domestic production has increased, but storage capacity has not – causing the market for NG to become depressed leading to cheap prices. Unlike the EU where it’s policy driven to reduce emissions, cheaper-than-coal gas prices in the US probably won’t stick (indeed they haven’t and have been climbing in Q3 & 4 of 2012) as storage becomes available and a functioning market takes hold. If the US wants that 13% to stick, then it has some policy work to do.

    All the same though, the increase in renewables is always welcome.

    And if nothing else (2008 financial crisis aside), it demonstrates that you can make real cuts in emissions without hurting puppies or small children.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      you make the point I forgot – current Nat gas prices are unsustainable, because virtually every well loses money at these rates. In addition, as new export facilities come on line, US consumers will be competing against a global price that is considarably higher than the domestic price.
      A rise is inevitable, and seasoned observers have warned that historic volatility in nat gas prices has not gone away.

  4. […] OK, we can argue about Natural gas as being totally good news. I'm not convinced that "lower emissions" takes into account possible methane leaks from natural gas fracking fields. But my take-away …  […]

  5. joffan7 Says:

    Gas substitution might get US electricity down by another 10-20% carbon emission. After that it’s going to be a very tough road to get further.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      actually, I think by that point the process will be accelerating and will not slow down.

      • joffan7 Says:

        We can hope so, but I don’t see it. Swapping gas to coal takes out that chunk, and adding a lot of wind nibbles away a little more, but when wind capacity builds up high, the grid balance will start to limit its contribution. Perhaps something will open up, but that “step in the dark” is more speculative than I feel comfortable with for public policy.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          Germany is already making that step. It will be well lit by the time we get around to it.

          • joffan7 Says:

            Again – I hope so – but the German reality at present is that they are building new coal plants, partly (as I understand it) in response to high gas prices.

          • greenman3610 Says:

            Germany has a target of 35 percent renewable power by 2020, rising to 85 percent by 2050 – meaning that 65 percent of its power supply will be conventional in 2020, and the country will still have 15 percent conventional power by mid-century. Obviously, Germany needs to build some new conventional power plants to reach even that ambitious goal for renewables.

            There have been reports that Germany plans to construct some 23 coal plants, but as in Cologne these plans predate the nuclear phaseout of 2011. The question is how many of these will be built. German environmental organization BUND has a map (in German) of the power plants planned and those already blocked. In addition, Germany’s Energy Agency (Dena), which is not considered a blind advocate of renewables (on the contrary, the renewables sector considered its Grid Studies subservient to grid operators’ needs), estimates in a recent study (PDF in German) that 18.5 gigawatts of coal power capacity (both hard coal and brown coal) will be decommissioned by 2020, whereas only 11.3 gigawatts will be newly installed by that time. Most of the new capacity is expected to be gas turbines, with 20.7 gigawatts going up by 2020.

          • looks like the thread has gotten too deep and i can’t reply to joffan7, so replying here. Germany is building coal plants that have long been scheduled to be built. but it isn’t announcing additional ones. it has switched a bit from natural gas to coal because it’s getting cheap coal from the US right now (and gas is expensive there), but renewables have replaced the nuclear put off line. and i’d expect they will start replacing fossil fuels a lot more in the coming years.

    • i wouldn’t think so. renewable energy dominated new installations in 2012. even more wind installed than natural gas. but that’s just the beginning — wind & solar costs are still coming down, while coal and natural gas costs are likely to go up. just recently, a PPA for a solar power plant in New Mexico with the electricity going for 5.8 cents per kWh (link below). new coal plants go for 10-14 cents per kWh. things are changing. once tipping points are hit, expect bigger & bigger growth.

      • joffan7 Says:

        The trend over the five years illustrated at the top shows gas at 10% (of market) growth and renewables at 4%, so generation has been more towards new gas – as you say, at current prices.

        Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.*

        Thanks for that link, although I have to say that it contains a bald-faced refusal to discuss subsidies on the price – which may be agreed in June.

        (* Niels Bohr)

        • Yep, solar is just picking up steam, wind had some poor years, so last year was much better for renewables than 5-year avg. As you say, ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’

          that story does discuss subsidies (not 100%, but doing so 100% would entail a huge study). also, fyi, there are actually more details regarding the NM subsidies in the comments.

          • joffan7 Says:

            Seriously. That story – like most of the comments – simply refuses to contemplate that there is a direct per-kWh subsidy applied to the solar electricity. Eventually, Bob Wallace in the comments gives a figure of “about” 2+2.7=4.7c/kWh, putting the generation price at 10.5c/kWh – which in itself is an impressively low price for solar. Couldn’t the article, or the commenters, just have given that number rather than all the fighting that went on there?

          • replying here since the comment thread got too deep: i think that’s far too simplistic of a way to look at it. if you want to bring in subsidies, you should bring in all subsidies. that includes the health externalities that subsidize the coal industry. to only bring in 1 or 2 out of 100 subsidies is deceiving. it’s quite absurd that we hold solar up to a higher standard of a ‘pure price’ than fossil fuels or nuclear, but this is consistently the demand. if you’re going to look at the price of electricity at the register, go for it. if you’re going to look at the price with subsidies, why only include 1 or 2?

  6. […] I reported yesterday on the transformation building steam in the US economy, as coal fired power plants are abandoned, and new energy services are being provided by efficiency, combined heat and power, micropower, gas turbines, and renewables – which are plummeting in price. […]

  7. a few things:

    yep, natural gas was hyped big time in this presentation (i was present):

    nope, the CO2 emissions drop doesn’t include any methane conversions/calculations. furthermore, the drop only concerns energy-related emissions, as BNEF’s CEO acknowledges in a short tweet convo here:

    best post i’ve seen on this overhyping of US emissions reductions:

    and, to be clear, more wind power was installed in 2012 than natural gas:

    if natural gas is simply used as a bridge, great. but the bridge isn’t actually a bridge in the industry’s eyes. the head of AGA, part of the presentation panel, said he didn’t see the price of gas dropping for several years (whether or not we can believe him is another matter). natural gas projects are being built as much more than a bridge. we could have much, much, much higher renewable energy penetration levels than we currently have without the need for natural gas. look at Germany. look at Denmark. nat gas is being pushed as an emission-reducing energy solution, not a bridge. i think this is a mistake. some great posts on this:

    • greenman3610 Says:

      agreed we should be installing more renewables.
      natural gas is bad. coal is freaking horrible.
      carbon price is needed, there is no doubt – to reflect the externalities of any fossil fuels.

  8. and since i forgot to subscribe to follow-up comments when submitting my last one, here’s one more item, on the natural gas price bubble:

    is the price bubble for real? or does the industry actually have a way around it? it’s hard to know. the head of the AGA is confident (or says he’s confident) that the price of nat gas will remain low for several years to come.

  9. […] 2013/02/04: PSinclair: Revolution in Progress: US Emissions at Lowest Since 1994 […]

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