Buried under the headlines of tax reform and of course, holiday distractions, came some big news from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA): after years of power generation emitting the most carbon in the U.S., that badge is now worn by the country’s transportation sector. This switch is the first time emissions from power generation were less than those from transport since the late 1970s.
Since the EIA started tracking annual emissions in 1988, emissions from transport were significantly lower than those generated by the nation’s power sector. The emissions patterns generally followed the same trajectory: when the economy would sputter, as it did during the recession of the early 1990s and fiscal crises a decade ago, emissions would both fall – only to rise again during an economic recovery.
But over the past year, a shift occurred, and the assumption that low transportation fuel prices over the past four years had something to do with this change do not tell the full story. As EIA researchers have noted, “the carbon intensity of the power sector has fallen much faster than the carbon intensity of the transportation sector.”
The automakers can point out that their cars and trucks have become more efficient in recent years, due to improved technologies and regulations. But those improvements in performance cannot match those of many U.S. utilities, which have gravitated toward cleaner-burning sources of power.
The largest factor in this transformation is the fact that last year, half of all utility-scale power capacity installed in the U.S. was from clean energy technologies.
In terms of percentage and raw numbers, the amount of new capacity from renewables added during 2017 is a big drop from the previous year. Nevertheless, the trend is unmistakable: more utilities are spurning coal when adding new power generation in favor of solar and wind power – or natural gas, the real trigger of coal’s decline. This shift is also not just happening along the coasts, either; Rust Belt states like Wisconsin are also adding more renewables to their energy portfolios.
Despite the current administration’s drive to revive the coal sector and develop an “America First” energy policy centered on fossil fuels, the combination of market forces – along with local and state directives – are pushing coal further into irrelevance. Even some of Trump’s appointees are hastening the decline of coal, with one example being the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s recent decision to not accommodate the Department of Energy’s recent request to protect aging coal power plants.
Image credit: Pete Jelliffe/Flickr