For decades, coal-fired power dominated the U.S. energy supply—and was a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.
But a combination of factors including cheap natural gas, stronger pollution controls, increasing investment in renewable power and improved energy efficiency have pushed coal's share of the energy market down to 33 percent and with it the carbon-intensive fuel's share of the nation's greenhouse pollution.
Natural-gas-fired power equaled coal's 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2015, according to the report, while natural gas use was 81 percent higher than coal's.
As a result, this year will be the first when CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants drop below those from natural gas, according to a new analysis from the federal Energy Information Agency (EIA).
Natural-gas-fired power equaled coal's 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2015, according to the report, while natural gas use was 81 percent higher than coal's. The EIA estimates that natural gas' share of energy-related CO2 will exceed that of still-declining coal by about 10 percent this year.
CO2 emissions are the leading driver of global warming and make up 81 percent of the nation's known 6.8 billion metric tons of annual greenhouse gas pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About 50 percent of those emissions come from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and power industrial facilities.
"Coal has been declining fairly steadily since around 2007," said Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a climate and energy think tank. "Some of the initial declines were a result of the Great Recession. But in the middle of the recession was when we began to experience the large natural gas boom."
Natural Gas Emissions to Surpass Coal for First Time in 44 Years via @EcoWatch https://t.co/9AjKtps98t #fracking— Green Bean (@Green Bean)1471570204.0
A 2012 EPA regulation sharply reducing legal levels of mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from smokestacks has also pushed utilities to invest in alternatives to coal-fired power, Vine said.
While environmentalists have long advocated an end to coal-fired power for the sake of both the climate and public health, some say that increasing reliance on natural gas is the wrong energy strategy.
"The report is a reminder that, as I say, there's good news and bad news about natural gas," said David Hawkins, the director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The good news is gas has half the carbon of coal and the bad news is gas has half the carbon of coal."
To avoid catastrophic climate change, "we have to move our society to a zero-emission economy, in a period of time that is less than the eligibility date for Social Security of kids being born today," he added. "It makes sense to keep using the existing natural gas power plants to keep backing out of coal, but we have to invest in new zero-emissions energy sources like wind, solar and efficiency" rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars on new natural gas infrastructure.
The primary ingredient of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas about four times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2. Methane accounts for 11 percent of known U.S. greenhouse emissions, according to the EPA. But leaks from natural gas and oil production infrastructure, leading sources of methane pollution, are not included in that figure.
Just one recent incident, the massive natural gas leak at California's Aliso Canyon storage field between October 2015 and February 2016, added the equivalent of around 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
A recent NASA study determined that around 250 methane leaks from natural gas and oil facilities, spread across 1,200-square-miles of the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, were the sources of a 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hanging over the region.
"There is a lot of uncertainty about how much methane is leaking and from where. I've seen estimates from 1 to 9 percent of total production escaping," said Jeff Deyette, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It doesn't take much methane to leak before it becomes on par worse than coal from a total emissions standpoint. That's another risk factor of utilities continuing to switch from coal to natural gas and policy makers pushing for more use of natural gas."
Both NRDC and Union of Concerned Scientists advocate stronger regulations to control methane leaks. But "gas prices are so cheap right now, that the industry isn't investing in the technologies to capture and close up those leaks," Deyette said.
Vine agreed that given the importance of keeping global temperature increases under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—the goal set by the Paris climate agreement—reliance on natural gas for energy would not be a good long-term strategy for the U.S. "Natural gas can be thought of as a complementary component to wind and solar while those resources continue to expand," because "most of the natural gas electricity-generating technologies can be ramped up and down flexibly."
He also saw a role for U.S. sales of natural gas to industrializing economies seeking to lower their own greenhouse gas emissions. "It allows us to export a lower-emitting fuel to places like China and India," Vine said. "It can help some developing countries by offering them alternatives to coal, a higher-emitting fossil fuel."
"Developing countries have plenty of renewable energy potential," Deyette countered. "We're not trying to put landlines through all of Africa, right? We're using cell phone technology. In the same vein, we don't want to swap one fossil fuel out for another when we have the capacity to leapfrog to totally renewable technologies in those countries."
"We should be exporting renewable energy, grid integration and battery technologies as a country," he said. "That should be our priority."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
A "trash tsunami" has washed ashore on the beaches of Honduras, endangering both wildlife and the local economy.
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More long-finned pilot whales were found stranded today on beaches in Tasmania, Australia. About 500 whales have become stranded, including at least 380 that have died, the AP reported. It is the largest mass stranding in Australia's recorded history.
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By Harry Kretchmer
By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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By Jessica Corbett
In another win for climate campaigners, leaders of 12 major cities around the world — collectively home to about 36 million people — committed Tuesday to divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in a green, just recovery from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
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