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Confirmed: U.S. Emissions Up in 2010

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A new Energy Department report shows that when it comes to coal and CO2 emissions, Americans are piling it on. But there are also signs of changes on the horizon. (DOE/David Parsons - NREL Staff Photographer)

Whether at Christmas time or in the heat of summer, nobody likes a lump of coal. Unfortunately, that’s what the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is delivering in its latest report.

Think way back, well, back to 2009, when there was just the slightest hint of a sea change in America’s energy picture. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were down, and down by a lot. On the heels of a 3 percent drop in 2008, 2009’s emissions had dropped by a whopping 7 percent. Taken together, the drops were half of what was needed to meet the 17 percent cuts the United States offered up in Copenhagen that December.

But emissions are expected to go down during an economic downturn, so what’s the big deal? Well, maybe it wasn’t a “big” deal, but it was a deal — small but tantalizing. The emissions declines were not all due to the recession. In fact, according to the EIA analysis, only about a third was attributable to the fall in gross domestic product. The other two-thirds were tied to a more structural shift in the way the nation generates and uses energy: specifically, a decrease in energy intensity (indicating greater efficiencies in energy generation and use) and a decrease in carbon intensity (due to fuel switching from coal to natural gas and to a lesser extent renewables).

These data raised a hopeful question: Could this be the first sign of a national trend?

A New Trend Toward Greater Efficiency and Cleaner Fuels?

Alas, the answer appears to be no.

Earlier this year, EIA projected that U.S. CO2 emissions in 2010 had increased by about 3 percent. The final tally now pegs the increase at 3.9 percent — the “largest absolute and percentage increase (213 million metric tons or 3.9 percent),” according to EIA, “in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the United States … since 1988 when they grew by 218 (4.6 percent).”

OK, an increase was expected; after all, the economy was rebounding in 2010. But GDP in 2010 only increased by 3 percent and emissions are up by 3.9 percent. So, just as 2009’s decrease could be traced to more than just the economy, last year’s increase was due to more than the economic recovery. Those other factors? Most can be chalked up to losses on the efficiency front (with energy intensity up by about 0.7 percent). There was also an uptick in carbon intensity by about 0.1 percent. (Another factor was a 0.9 percent increase in population.) In short, the economy has retreated from its greater efficiency/cleaner fuels gains of 2009.

What happened? Simple. The economic uptick centered around energy-intensive industries that primarily rely on coal; the fact that 2010 was one hot summer didn’t help either.

In 2009 coal consumption dropped by about 12 percent, but in 2010 it rose by almost 6 percent. Natural gas consumption also increased — by a similar percentage, but the increase in carbon intensity is an indicator that the economy’s first response to increased demand has been to reach for fuels with higher rather than lower carbon content to power its engines.

Not surprising I guess in hindsight. There’s a lot of excess coal capacity in the system, and coal has been the mainstay of much of U.S. manufacturing industries and much of the electricity upon which they depend. Also, the very hot summer of 2010 drove up electricity use to cool homes, causing a six percent bump in residential demand for electrical energy, and because so much of our nation’s power grid depends on coal, that in turn drove up carbon intensity. And then there was the jump in natural gas prices at the start of 2010 that made it less attractive relative to coal.

But Hold On …

If you dig down deep into that end-of-summer stocking from the EIA, you’ll find a little bit of sweet to go with that lump of coal. It’s found in their data under the heading “Electric generating capacity additions in the first half of 2011.” In eight of the top 10 states with new capacity, the majority of the new capacity came in the form of natural gas or renewable energy. The exceptions: Kentucky and Wisconsin. Even in Texas, new capacity from natural gas edged out coal by a margin of about 1,100 megawatts to 800 megawatts. And in Colorado and California, most of the new capacity came in the form of wind energy. (See chart below.)

And so, a hopeful question surfaces once again: Could these be signs of a national trend toward greater efficiency and lower-carbon, cleaner fuels? Stranger things have happened.

Chart of electric generating capacity additions in the first half of 2011 - US EIA
In eight of the top 10 states with new capacity in the first half of 2011, the majority of the new capacity came in the form of natural gas or renewable energy. (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly)