Natural Gas Is Driving a Historic Drop in U.S. Carbon Emissions

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U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly, December 2013 edition (Source: EIA)

This gas-driven drop in carbon emissions is even more dramatic when you consider the rapid population growth of the last two decades. Since 1994, the U.S. has grown by more than 50 million people, dramatically expanding the number of energy consumers. That demographic growth helped drive rising emission levels until they peaked in 2007. But the accelerating transition to gas has now pushed emissions down to levels not seen since 1994. On a per capita basis, U.S. carbon emissions are now at the level they were in 1961, when the The Ed Sullivan Show and Bonanza were on the air. The EIA says that natural gas is the key driver of these reduced carbon emissions.

"On a per capita basis, U.S. carbon emissions are now at the level they were in 1961"

Few regions better illustrate the shift to natural gas than the Tennessee Valley, where America’s largest public power company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, lights the front porches, factories and football fields of the Mid-South. Created in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt as part of the New Deal, the TVA electrified an underdeveloped, Depression-Era South, attracting industry and creating jobs with cheap, reliable electricity. Today TVA provides power to 9 million consumers in Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia.

A TVA Nitrate Plant in Muscle Shoals, Ala., that the Tennessee Valley Authority has donated as part of a large collection of old photographs and drawings, dating back to 1918. (AP Photo/Univ. of North Alabama Photo Archive)

This region, nestled between the Cumberland and Appalachian Mountains, is historic coal country. But in 2011, TVA announced a new New Deal for the region—a plan to transition to cleaner energy sources. TVA has already closed more than a dozen coal-fired units and has committed to closing more. It’s replacing most of them with state-of-the-art natural gas facilities like the enormous 1,000 megawatt plant currently being constructed in Muhlenberg County in Western Kentucky. In just the last three years, the percentage of electricity TVA produces from coal has dropped from just over half to less than one-third.

In June, TVA announced that because of that transition, the Authority’s carbon emissions had fallen to 30 percent below their 2005 levels. By 2020, TVA projects that emissions will fall to just one half of what they were in 1995.

None of America’s historic transition to gas-fueled electricity would be possible without the dramatically increased supply and reduced cost of natural gas. The sea change in the U.S. energy economy is the result of three decades of technological innovation. Producers can now extract vast quantities of previously inaccessible gas from underground shale formations. That’s made America the number one producer of natural gas in the world, topping Russia and Iran.

As supply goes up, prices go down. That changed cost calculus is now transforming the U.S. energy economy. Coal has historically been the top energy source for producing electricity in the United States. But meeting increasingly tight EPA emissions standards requires retrofitting aging coal-fired plants with expensive updates. For many utilities, the low price of natural gas—and the confidence that it will stay low for decades into the future—makes transitioning from coal to natural gas a more economical alternative. What’s happened at TVA mirrors decisions power utilities are making across the United States.

U.S. Energy Information Administration, State Energy Data System (SEDS) 2014 (Source: EIA)

In June of this year, the EPA announced President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan’s goal is to cut carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020. That goal is similar to what TVA has already achieved with its transition to natural gas and other cleaner energy sources. In a statement issued the day the President’s plan was announced, TVA noted that it had hit the EPA’s 2020 emission reduction goal in 2013, seven years ahead of pace. In fact, TVA predicted that it would significantly exceed the EPA’s 2020 goal, lowing emissions by a full 40 percent from their 2005 levels.

Industry experts say the new rules will only accelerate America’s transition to natural gas. In a landmark speech on energy policy at Georgetown University last year, President Obama voiced his continued support for expanded use of natural gas, attributing the dramatic drop in U.S. carbon emissions to increased use of natural gas and renewables. “A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come,” he stated. “And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future—right here in the United States of America. That’s our task.”