Coal Is Collapsing Faster Than Ever, Leaving U.S. Power Cleaner

The carbon intensity of the U.S. power sector reached a new low in 2019, more than a third below its 2005 level, according to a new analysis from Carnegie-Mellon University. The drop tracks an accelerating collapse in the burning of coal.
In 2019, the power sector’s carbon emissions were 11 percent lower than just a year earlier, according to the analysis by Carnegie-Mellon’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation. The 2019 data precedes more recent changes wrought by the coronavirus lockdown.
“Some good news,” tweeted Costa Samaras, co-director of the Scott Institute’s Power Sector Carbon Index. “We ran the latest numbers and the annual CO2 intensity of the US power sector for 2019 was 33% lower than it was in 2005, falling below 400 g/kWh for the first time ever.”
Samaras also announced that in the 4th Quarter of 2019, wind power had increased its share 20% from the previous year and solar 18%, while coal fell 22%. Natural gas increased 12 percent.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration today reported that energy generation from coal had reached a 42-year low. Coal plants are retiring, and those that remain open are being used less, the EIA reports.
Cheap natural gas has been the biggest factor in coal’s demise, according to EIA.
Carbon intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon emitted for each unit of power produced. Samaras, his co-director, Ines M. Azevedo, and staff calculate it from DOE and EPA data on power and emissions.
“We're adding new power plants, natural gas, renewables. So the grid is changing, and we want to track that,” Azevedo said. “And the way we have done that is to assemble a large data set that includes how much emissions come out of every single power plant in the United States and divide that by the total generation that is produced by all those power plants in that same year.”
US Power Sector CO2 Emissions Intensity:
U.S. Power Generation By Fuel Type:
Although this analysis precedes the coronavirus lockdown, many experts expect renewables to continue to grow this year even as covid-19 has worsened conditions for fossil fuels.
“Amid today’s unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency. “Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use.
Other analysts have reported similar findings. “U.S. power usage is set to drop more steeply in 2020 than in any year over the past two decades,” Raymond James reported, “and renewables are poised to gain more share in 2020 than ever before.”
Renewables may grow slower than originally predicted for 202o, the experts say, but they will still grow, while fossil fuels decline.
“It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts,” Birol said, “but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before.”
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