Amidst increasingly acrimonious political fighting in Washington over the fate of U.S. environmental programs in general, and about climate policy in particular, carbon dioxide emissions from power plants have resumed their upward climb after a recession-related retreat. News of rising emissions is likely to intensify the tug-of-war over federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
While official data for overall US emissions has not yet been released for 2010* by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), data from power plant emissions—which account for about 40% of total U.S. emissions—point to a return to upward growth in overall emissions as the economy heats up. With demand for electricity falling, overall emissions contracted by 6% during the recession of 2008 and 2009, bucking a trend of steady 0.4% annual growth since 1990. The retreat temporarily deflated the national debate on climate policy.
Now it looks like emissions are climbing again, in sync with the economic recovery. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from power plants surged by 5.6%, after declining sharply in 2009. The rise last year is largest in a single year since the EPA began tracking the data 15 years ago, according to a study by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for more effective enforcement of environmental laws.
Reflecting the recovery the economy, growth in emissions mirrors increased demand for power. “Last year’s rise was driven in part by a 3.0% net increase in overall generation for the 12 months ending in November of 2010,” the report noted.
In 2010 carbon dioxide emissions from power plants grew to 2.42 billion metric tons, or gigatonnes, up from 2.30 gigatonnes in 2009, based on data from the EPA’s Clean Air Markets website. Total carbon emissions from power plants were still below the record of 2.57 gigatonnes set in 2007.
Across the U.S., 50 coal-fired power plants accounted for 750 million tons, or megatonnes, of carbon dioxide releases in 2010, nearly one-third of the nation’s total. Four power plants emitted over 20 megatonnes apiece in 2010, two in Georgia, one in Alabama, and one in Texas.
The heaviest emitting states were Texas with 257 million tons, nearly twice the volume of the number two state, Florida, where power plants released 130 million tons of carbon emissions. Rounding out the top-10 states were: Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri.
The resurgence in emissions come amidst sustained opposition to new coal burning facilities, and a shift by utilities to replace older coal plants with natural gas.
Nearly 4.5 gigawatts of new coal-fired electric generation came on line in 2010, the study notes, about half of that in Texas.
But power companies have also announced plans to retire almost 12 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity in coming years, including the January announcement last month that Xcel would close nearly 900 megawatts of coal-fired capacity at four different power stations in Colorado.
* U.S. greenhouse gas data for 2009 was released in draft form on Feb. 15, 2011. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/downloads11/US-GHG-Inventory-2011-Complete_Report.pdf