Power-sector emissions drop despite Trump policies

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The nation’s power sector continues to march toward meeting and surpassing the goals of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which the Trump administration has moved to water down.

Carbon emissions tied to U.S. electricity generation have dropped 28 percent since 2005 to a total of 1,744 million metric tons last year — the lowest since 1987 — according to data the U.S. Energy Information Administration posted publicly yesterday.

The downward trend is tied to a shift away from coal-fired generation alongside the spread of natural gas, cheaper wind and solar, and declining demand for electricity in the industrial and residential sectors, according to EIA, the government’s independent energy analyst.

While the downward trend wasn’t unexpected, experts say the power sector’s decrease in emissions is sizable and points to the power of state and private-sector action to combat climate change.

“To see this across the entire country and to see this close to those 2030 targets, I think that was a little bit of a surprise,” said Kate Konschnik, director of the climate and energy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

While the Obama-era Clean Power Plan didn’t mandate a particular reduction, EPA anticipated based on state targets that the nation would see a 30 percent drop in power sector emissions by 2030.

According to yesterday’s EIA data, the industry is nearing that goal more than a decade early, a sign that power companies are acting on state policies and private-sector demand for clean energy — even without the Clean Power Plan.

“We always knew the Clean Power Plan was sort of riding the coattails of state public policies and private-sector clean energy demand, and those drivers aren’t going away,” said Konschnik. “If anything, they have intensified. I think we’re just on this trajectory that EPA saw and tried to harness with the Clean Power Plan.”

EIA found slower demand for electricity and changes in the U.S. power generation mix have played “nearly equal roles in reducing U.S. power sector CO2 emissions.” But while utilities curbed their carbon dioxide output by 28 percent, other parts of the energy sector saw only a 5 percent dip.

But the continuing decarbonization as utilities shift from coal to gas and renewables is still uncertain given the Trump administration’s stated goal of reviving a struggling coal industry. Along with a host of regulatory rollbacks, the administration has for months been vetting a proposal to throw ailing coal and nuclear plants a financial lifeline in the name of national security, a policy that’s now floundering at the White House.

Konschnik also pointed to the Trump administration’s proposal in August for EPA to replace the Clean Power Plan with a weaker version of the rule that sets less stringent climate targets, as well as a new loophole in the New Source Review Program. Those moves could keep older, dirtier coal plants online, she said.

But Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while the trend of decreasing emissions in the power sector could be stalled, it’s unlikely to be reversed.

The utility sector for years has seen a drop in emissions on the back of strong state policies, dropping costs of renewables and the shuttering of coal plants.

But Kimmell also warned that despite the downward trend we’re seeing today in power sector emissions, the loss of the Clean Power Plan also takes away a federal backstop to curb emissions if market conditions change.

“I do think this is a trend now that’s become embedded,” he said. “It can’t be reversed, but it could be slowed down.”