How companies help cut energy emissions by 20 percent

When Mars Inc. realized that its cocoa, peanut and almond supply chains were threatened by global warming, it set out on a path to reduce its net carbon emissions to zero.

To do so, it upgraded its 139 factories to be energy efficient and invested billions of dollars in renewable energy, including helping the state of Texas with its $7 billion plan to connect wind power to the grid.

That kind of corporate muscle seems to contribute largely to the shift in the electric power industry emerging today, characterized by sharply dropping greenhouse gas emissions and decoupling energy generation from economic growth.

A report released today shows that the 100 largest U.S. power companies, which together generate 85 percent of the nation’s electricity, reduced carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent in a single decade, from 2005 to 2015, with signs of a sharper drop in 2016.

Energy efficiency — that old eat-your-vegetables sort of obligation — emerges in the numbers as a potent and profitable change maker.

As U.S. GDP grew 33 percent between 2000 and last year,  total electricity use grew only 7 percent. 

That 26 percent delta is energy efficiency.

"We have decoupled economic growth from energy generation and GHG emissions," said Dan Bakal, director of electric power at Ceres and a contributing author to the report. 

The report, "Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States," was published by M.J. Bradley & Associates with support and contributions from Bank of America, Calpine, Entergy, Exelon, Tenaska, Ceres and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It quantifies and ranks emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury from the 100 largest utilities, which collectively operate 2,900 power plants across the United States.  

It largely describes the early stages of success in beginning to decarbonize the electric power industry. 

"It is a combination of energy efficiency, growth in renewables and natural gas taking market share from coal," Bakal said of the reductions in emissions in the four potent GHGs.


From Benchmarking Air Emissions fBenchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States. M.J. Bradley & Associates

In addition to the 20 percent drop in carbon emissions in a decade, the report shows that by 2015 the utilities' emissions of sulfur dioxide were 87 percent lower than in 1990 while their nitrogen oxides emissions were 79 percent lower and annual carbon dioxide emissions 21 percent lower. For reference, 1990 was when the Clean Air Act amendments were passed regulating these air pollutants. Since 2000, mercury emissions from these 100 utilities fell 69 percent.

For sure, GHG emissions are still very high and coal still is the dominant fuel, barely inching out natural gas, used by the nation's utilities. But at 33 plus percent of generation mix in 2015, coal use is down from 52 percent of the nation’s generation mix in 2006. And renewables now account for 8 percent of U.S. electricity generation — percentage that will be fast growing: 65 percent of new generating capacity now under development is renewable.


From Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States. © 2017 M.J. Bradley & Associates LLC.

The overall picture in the report shows a utility industry transforming in ways that perhaps could position it to even meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan, even though that law languishes in court, unenforced. The Clean Power Plan calls for reducing electric power industry carbon emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It was the core program behind the U.S. government's commitments to the Paris Agreement. 


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Smart Grid Bulletin July 2019

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