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RP Siegel headshot

Power Sector Emissions Hit Historic Low

By RP Siegel




















In the race against time that the battle against climate change has become, we get a see-saw of good news followed by bad news, almost on a daily basis. Damage from severe storms in the past year, such as from Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma continue to break records for the amount of damage sustained. In 2017, there were a total of 16 storms costing over $1 billion each in the US alone. The Greenland ice sheet is melting at the fastest rate in centuries, and massive chunks are breaking off of Antarctica.

Meanwhile, progress on reducing emissions slowly but steadily continues, even as schemes for pulling carbon back out of the air are gathering momentum. Even the Trump administration, who seems hell-bent on increasing emissions, managed to include some substantial funding for carbon sequestration in their last budget.

The net result is progress, albeit, almost certainly not enough, but progress nonetheless. A recent report released by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) recently revealed that power sector emissions today, are lower than they have ever been.

The 2018 Carnegie Mellon Power Sector Index, tracks the environmental performance of the US power sector, comparing it with historical data going back over twenty years. The index showed an average rating of 967 lbs CO2/MWh for 2017.This was a 3.1% drop over the previous year, and a drop of 26.8% compared to 2005.  This is the second year for the index, which is being expanded to provide regional information, as well as categorization by fuel types.

According to the report:

  • More than half of the reduction in CO2 emissions intensity since 2005 is due to a shift from coal to natural gas.

  • Emissions intensity of the natural gas fleet has reduced by 17 percent since 2001, as more efficient turbine technologies and operating schedules have been introduced.

  • Since 2005 renewable electricity has grown from 9 percent of U.S. generation to 15 percent—an increase of nearly 75 percent.

At the same time, according to the US EIA, electricity sales for 2017 dropped by 2% or 80 billion kWh. That means we’re using less, and what we’re using is cleaner. Why we used less in 2017, likely has more to do with a cooler summer (less air conditioning use) than any other factor, though a considerable number of factors, such as more efficient appliances and increasing environmental awareness likely contributed as well.

It is an undeniable and somewhat ironic truth, that fracking, and the natural gas boom it ushered in, with all of its attendant environmental problems, has likely been the biggest single force in reducing the carbon emissions that pose the greatest long-term threat to our survival. While too much has been made of this by its defenders, and too little by its detractors, the key takeaway here might be the tension it exposes between ideological purity on the one hand and blunt pragmatism on the other, as well as the inherent dangers to be found lurking in both.

This situation will pass, once the low-hanging fruit of dirty coal plants have been harvested and the need for deeper cuts becomes clear. Still the experience has clearly illustrated how much change can be quickly accomplished when economic forces align with underlying purpose. While we have now successfully decoupled carbon emissions from economic growth, we have yet to decouple climate action from economic gain, and it remains to be seen whether or not we can.

The good news is that natural gas, solar and wind all provide positive economic outcomes, as do many forms of efficiency measures, making them easier sells. All of these are driving the substantial progress being made towards the goals laid out in Paris. But still more needs to be done. To this end, technologists will continue to look for new ways to make doing the right thing affordable, if not profitable, while sustainability advocates will continue working to open up other channels based on aspiration, community awareness and a sense of shared purpose.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons: Joe+Jeanette Archie

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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