Recent Drop in Greenhouse Gasses – Media Fails To Credit Renewables and EPA Understates The Impact

The LA times reported (here) that US greenhouse gas emissions declined 1.6% from 2010 – 2011 and 6.9% from 2005 – 2011.  For the electrical sector’s contribution they attribute this exclusively to increased us of natural gas.  However they don’t mention renewables and conservation as contributing substantially.  I spent a little time reviewing the EPA report (info here) and it does not do a good job of highlighting the success story that wind is becoming.  In fact, in their overview they don’t mention wind, they talk about increased use of natural gas and hydro power.

“This decrease was primarily due to a decrease in the carbon intensity of fuels consumed to generate electricity due to a decrease in coal consumption, with increased natural gas consumption and a significant increase in hydropower used.”

energy by type

A careful look at the graph above (source = Center for Climate and Energy Solutions) and it is evident that the increase in both wind and hydro contributed approximately the same amount of energy as did the increase in natural gas from 2010 – 2011.  However since both have no emissions their contribution to the reduction in GHG emissions is twice that of natural gas suggesting that the increase in hydro and wind totaled 3 to 4 times more GHG reduction than natural gas.  There also was a reduction in overall electrical energy produced which contributed to the decline in coal power.

Here is a great graphic that shows, in detail, the increase in wind power in the US.

Here is a graph of the change in price of natural gas over the last few decades.

Historic Natural Gas Prices

The gas price drop really didn’t occur until 2009 (see Here).  So yes they could ramp up use of existing plants but not enough time to get new plants online.  So there probably is additional electricity production from gas and, as a result, less from coal.  But in the 2005 – 2009 period something entirely different had to be happening because gas prices were at record highs.  And during that period there was a 5.3% reduction in GHG.  It is conspicuous that renewable energy was not mentioned at all.  Sadly, even NPR failed in this regard.

From 2005 through 2011 installed windpower capacity increased from about 10 GW to about 47 GW an increase of 37 GW.  To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of about 13 nuclear power plants if capacity factor is taken into account.  This is equivalent to roughly 1.6% of USA electric power production.  But only about 50% of electric power is produced by burning coal which is the most polluting.

When a capacity factor adjusted GW of wind displaces a GW of coal it takes all of the GHGs off of the table since it emits no GHGs.  When a GW of gas displaces a GW of coal it only takes half the GHGs off of the table since gas generators emit about half of the GHGs that coal generators do.  So wind is leveraged and a GW of wind will reduce GHG by twice as much as a GW of natural gas.  Clearly the increase in wind played a real part in this success story and sadly, that went unreported.

Some additional fun facts about renewables include the following: In the period from 2011 – 2012 the USA added over 5GW of solar power.  In 2013 the industry expects to add another 4GW*.  The Solar Energy Industries Association has great, easy to understand, information Here.

In 2012 the wind industry added another 13GW of wind power in the US.  Other good wind statistics can be found Here.

Windpower is rapidly approaching hydroelectric power in its contribution to electricity generation in the USA.

*This is an industry projection.  Historically the solar industry has done a good job of projecting out 1 – 2 years.

Other Sources:  3% of electricity from wind in 2011 but remember, when offsetting coal, wind has double the benefit of natural gas power since it emits no GHG.  Gives a reasonable picture of things but still language is biased in favor of Natural Gas.  They make sure to mention that natural gas has been growing in use but wind has as well and is of comparable scale e.g. in 2012 the electricity source with the most rapid growth was wind power.

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