The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has come out with some more data to substantiate the contributions of natural gas to reduced CO2 emissions.
I’m not one of those folks who loses sleep over CO2 emissions, given the fact rising CO2 has typically followed global warming in our Earth’s history, not preceded it, but for those who do fret, the latest EIA data ought to be reassuring. We’ve been lowering CO2 for a number of reasons and it’s the combination of natural gas and renewables use that has made it possible.
The October 23rd edition of the EIA’s Today in Energy included the very neat chart above and some explanatory text by Perry Lindstrom demonstrating where we are with respect to CO2 emissions and how we’ve gotten there. Here are some key excerpts (emphasis added):
U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) have declined in five of the past eight years. This trend has been led by emissions reductions in the electric power sector. Electricity demand growth has been lower than in the past and at the same time the power sector has become less carbon intensive (measured as CO2 emitted per kilowatthour of generation). Total emissions from the electric power sector in 2013 totaled 2,053 million metric tons (MMmt), about 15% below their 2005 level.
U.S. electricity demand has decreased in recent years, as declines in the industrial sector continue to outweigh slight increases in residential and commercial demand. If electricity demand had continued to increase at its rate over the 1996-2005 period, emissions in 2013 would have been roughly 400 MMmt above actual 2013 levels, assuming carbon intensity remained constant.
The power sector has become less carbon intensive for two reasons: the substitution of less-carbon-intensive natural gas-fired generation, displacing coal and petroleum generation, and the growth in noncarbon generation, especially from renewables such as wind and solar.
The substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels (mostly coal) has largely been market driven, as ample supplies of attractively priced natural gas and the relative ease of adding natural gas-fired capacity have often made it the fuel of choice for electric power generation. This was especially true in 2012, when natural gas prices were particularly low and natural gas provided 29% of total generation. In 2013 and 2014, market conditions have made coal generation more economically attractive, leading to a modest rise in coal-fired generation.
While the substitution of natural gas for coal has garnered significant attention, since 2005 the decline in the carbon intensity of total generation as a result of the increase in noncarbon power generation has also had an effect on emissions from power generation. The growth in noncarbon generation has been driven largely by state policies and federal tax incentives that have encouraged the use of renewables. These factors have particularly benefitted wind and solar energy sources; in 2005, wind and solar generation totaled 18 billion kWh, or about 2% of noncarbon generation, while by 2013 they generated 176 billion kWh, or 14% of noncarbon generation…
The overall decline in carbon intensity of electricity generation, through both reduced fossil fuel carbon intensity and increased noncarbon generation, has reduced cumulative CO2 emissions from power generation by about 1.6 billion metric tons since 2005.
A few additional observations are in order:
- Notice that the largest share of the CO2 emissions decline below trend is explainable by lowered industrial demand. This is attributable to a combination of factors, including the economic recession (bad) and increased economic efficiency (good). We don’t know the breakdown, but studies have suggested a 20% energy efficiency gain is possible in industry, which uses one-third of all energy. If realized that would reduce overall energy use and, presumably CO2 emissions, by as much as 5-6%. While impressive this also suggests most of the reduced CO2 emissions to date have had more to do with economic conditions than increased energy efficiency, meaning this factor is less than what it might seem from the chart and the contributions of gas and renewables are relatively more important than what the chart suggests.
- The conversion to natural gas is responsible for a 212 million metric tons (MMmt) reduction in CO2, whereas switching to renewables and other non-carbon sources of energy achieved a 150 MMmt reduction. So much for the theory natural gas and renewables are not compatible. However, it’s also important to note the renewables contributions are taxpayer subsidized, whereas the natural gas contributions are market-driven. We could never afford to reduce CO3 emissions to the extent we have if we tried to do it with renewables alone.
- The solution to reducing CO2 emissions going forward, then, is a combination of natural gas conversions, renewables, other non-carbon sources such as nuclear and increased energy efficiency. Coal, however, has become relatively less expensive of late and, therefore, continuing to find new and improved methods of natural gas extraction (like this) are key to keeping its price low enough to be a good substitute for coal. Additional infrastructure to deliver gas already sitting in capped wells to market is also key in achieving stabilized low prices, as is export of gas via liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals. The more of a world-wide commodity market that is created for natural gas, the lower that stabilized price will be and the more of it that will be used in place of coal.
- CO2 emissions need to be put in context. CO2 levels have gone up and down many times in our history and have frequently exceeded where we are now so let’s keep our heads about us as we discuss this issue. These two charts tell the story.
Those of you who disagree with that last observation are free to so, of course, but if you are still smitten by the appeal of global warming as a cause, take heart, because the neutral EIA data shows natural gas is a huge part of the solution you want, allowing us to make peace and move it, renewables and energy efficiency together in synchronized motion to reduce CO2 emissions. Natural gas is the “big mo,” however.
Like most EIA reports, this one is chock full of important facts delivered without the ideology that often comes with government documents. It simply delvers the data, explains and lets the rest of us interpret what it means and should mean for policy. The EIA may, in that regard, be the only agency in Washington actually doing its job these days.
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