U.S. Power Sector Emissions to Fall to Their Lowest Since 1994

Solar Farm in arid country

By Maura Forrest

April 16, 2015

This year will see major progress in U.S. emissions reductions, with carbon pollution from the power sector on track to fall to its lowest level in 20 years.

new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predicts that a combination of new renewable capacity, the phase-out of some coal-fired power plants, and low natural gas prices will pull power sector emissions down to 15.4 per cent lower than 2005 levels.

The U.S. will install more renewable capacity this year than ever before. That will likely include 9.1 gigawatts of solar power, over half of which will come from California, and 8.9 gigawatts of wind, a third of which will come from Texas.

However, the rush to build may end in 2017, when federal tax incentives for renewable power installation are set to expire.

Meanwhile, 23 gigawatts of coal power are expected to go offline in 2015. The phase-out is a response to new mercury emission standards being implemented this week, which will make it very costly to continue to operate old coal-fired power plants. The declining cost of natural gas is also making coal power less competitive.

“More interesting than the single-year drop in emissions are the ‘structural’ impacts that will live on for decades,” said William Nelson, head of North American analysis for BNEF, in a press release. “Emissions can rise or fall year-to-year based on weather anomalies and volatile fuel prices – but in 2015, we’ll take a giant, permanent step towards de-carbonizing our entire fleet of power plants.”

Canada also has new regulations coming into play for coal-fired power plants this year. But a report published last fall predicted that Canada’s new rules will have a negligible effect on carbon emissions for the next 15 years. That’s because the regulations will initially apply only to new power plants, while plants built in the last 50 years will not have to comply until 2030.

Individual provinces are making more headway with reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. Ontario closed its last coal-fired power plant in 2014, while Quebec plans to generate 10 per cent of its power with wind by this year.

Even though the Obama administration may be ahead of the Harper government in its efforts to de-carbonize the power sector, it’s also true that the U.S. is still much more dependent on fossil-fuel power than Canada. Renewables, chiefly hydroelectricity, account for 63 per cent of power generation in Canada. In the U.S., about 67 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels, with 39 per cent generated from coal.