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US power sector is halfway towards zero-carbon operation

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The US has managed to cut carbon emissions from its power sector by 50 per cent from 2005 projections, a study has found.

Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analysed historical trends to examine how much progress the power sector has already made in reducing emissions.

It found that “business-as-usual projections” from 2005 estimated that annual carbon dioxide emissions would rise from 2,400 to 3,000 million metric tons (megatonnes) by 2020.

But actual 2020 emissions fell to only 1,450Mt, which amounts to a by 52 per cent cut below projected levels.

According to the study, total consumer electricity costs have also fallen by 18 per cent while the costs associated with human health and the climate fell by 92 per cent and 52 per cent respectively.

Concerns about climate change are driving a growing number of states, utilities, and corporations to set the goal of zeroing out power-sector carbon emissions. To date 17 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico have adopted laws or executive orders to achieve 100 per cent carbon-free electricity in the next couple of decades.

Additionally, 46 US utilities have pledged to go carbon free no later than 2050. Altogether, these goals cover about half of the US population and economy.

The total demand for electricity was almost exactly the same in 2020 as it was in 2005 despite estimates that demand would increase by 24 per cent.

“This drop in demand was due in part to sectoral and economic changes, but also to greater energy efficiency driven by policies and technology advancement,” said Berkeley Lab scientist Ryan Wiser, lead author of the study.

The researchers found that wind and solar power dramatically outperformed expectations, delivering 13 times more generation in 2020 than projected. This is also a result of technology development and state and federal policies, as prices plummeted for new wind and solar technologies.

In the UK for example, prices for wind power fell so much last year that the government started receiving ‘negative subsidies’ which would see facilities pay money back to the taxpayer over their lifetime.

In addition, nuclear generation in the US has largely held steady, tracking the past projections and helping to ensure no backsliding in carbon emission.

The study found that switching from coal to natural gas for power generation played a big role in lowering carbon emissions. Natural gas generation grew rapidly, driven by the shale gas revolution and low fuel prices.

According to the study, reduced sulphur and nitrogen emissions led to lower health impacts, such as respiratory disease, with premature deaths falling from 38,000 to 3,100 per year.

“Compared to the business-as-usual projection, not only did the nation significantly reduce its carbon footprint, but it did so while also reducing total energy bills and health burdens,” said co-author and Berkeley Lab scientist Dev Millstein.

The study also found that while employment patterns shifted along with changes in the power sector, electricity supply is supporting 200,000 more jobs than might have been the case under the earlier projection.

There are still significant infrastructure requirements related to scaling up renewable energy in order to make a carbon-neutral power system a reality, Wiser said.

Last week, the amount of carbon dioxide produced by Britain’s electricity network fell to its lowest level yet as lockdown restrictions remained and people enjoyed time away from the office.

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