Power Industry Air Pollutant Emissions Decreased in 2011

Coal fired power plantThe power industry decreased air pollutant emissions in 2011 even though the overall electricity generation increased, according to a new report. The report titled, Benchmarking Air Emissions report covers the power plant emissions of 2011 from the top 100 power producers. In 2011, the top 100 power producers accounted for 86 percent of the electricity produced, but accounted for 88 percent of the industry’s air pollution emissions. The report focuses on four power plant pollutants: nitrous dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury. Those four air pollutants are associated with environmental and health problems that include climate change, fine particle air pollution, ozone, smog and haze. The report is a collaborative effort among Bank of America, Entergy, Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), Tenaska, Ceres, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in 2011 from power plants were 70 and 72 percent lower from 1990 levels. Although carbon emissions of power plants increased by 20 percent since 1990, they declined seven percent from 2008 to 2011. Power plants are the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. Mercury emissions from power plants decreased by 40 percent since 2000, the first year that mercury emissions were reported by the industry under the Toxics Release Inventory. The major forces driving the recent drop in emissions are low natural gas prices, an increased level of pollution controls installed at coal plants and coal plant retirements.

The top three power producers were responsible for 15 percent of the 3.5 billion megawatt hours of electricity generated by the 100 top producers. The top three were also responsible for the following percentages of air pollutant emissions:

  • 21 percent of the sulfur dioxide
  • 15 percent of the nitrous oxide
  • 15 percent of the mercury
  • 16 percent of the carbon emissions

The 100 top producers accounted for 90 percent of all coal-fired power, 80 percent of natural gas-fired power, 39 percent of oil-fired power, 97 percent of nuclear power, 85 percent of hydroelectric power and 69 percent of non-hydroelectric renewable power. Coal and nuclear accounted for half of the output of 58 of the top 100 producers. Renewable generation increased by 44 percent, and natural gas generation increased by 69 percent from 2000 to 2011, while coal-fired generation decreased 12 percent during same time period.

The projections of the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2013 (Early Release) indicate that air pollutants emissions from the power plant sector will continue to decrease. The EIA projects that sulfur dioxide emissions will range from 1.0 million to 2.0 million tons a year beginning in 2016. In comparison, power companies reported about 3.3 million tons of sulfur dioxide in 2012. Mercury emissions are projected to decline from about 30 tons a year (presently) to about six tons a year beginning in 2016, while nitrous oxide emissions will range from 1.6 million to 1.9 million tons a year beginning in 2016. Power companies reported about 1.75 million tons of nitrous oxide emissions in 2012. The EIA projects that carbon emissions will only modestly decrease in 2016.

“The electric power industry is moving to cleaner sources of energy, demonstrating that cleaner power generation is achievable.  Stronger regulations will reinforce those trends and stimulate further investment in low-carbon, low-risk resources like renewable power and energy efficiency,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres.

Photo: Flickr user, Rennett Stowe

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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