Power plants are a key source of carbon emissions in the U.S., accounting for about one third of all of our climate change-causing pollution. And the good news is that those plants have become cleaner. The Department of Energy recently said the sector’s emissions were at a 27-year low, despite increasing energy demand over that time.
Much of the reductions in emissions have come in the last few years. A report from Ceres, a network of investment and environmental groups, shows that power plant emissions fell 12% between 2008 and 2013, even as the economy recovered after the recession.
Within that national figure hides a lot of variation. Some states have seen falling emissions and some have actually seen increases, and not all of these differences are explained by economic growth or the lack of it. It also has to do with the measures producers have taken to make their plants more efficient and their choice of fuel. Burning natural gas instead of coal releases about half the CO2 emissions, for example.
Ceres’s report, which benchmarks carbon emissions as well as mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide pollutants, finds that certain producers are more important than others. Five–Duke Energy, AEP, Southern, NRG, and MidAmerican–account for 25% of power plant CO2 emissions. The dirtiest plants–that is, those with the most carbon-intensive energy production–are Big Rivers Electric, in Kentucky, Great River Energy (Minnesota and Wisconsin) and Basin Electric Coop (multiple states).
The numbers show big differences in carbon “intensity” across the country. Among the biggest 100 producers in 2013, Big Rivers emitted 2,264 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of power, while Exelon, New York Power Authority, PG&E Corporation, and Iberdrola emitted less than 200 pounds per MWh. That’s a 10-fold difference.
Meeting the Obama Administration’s new Clean Power Plan–announced earlier this year–will certainly be tough for some parts of the industry, and perhaps devastating for the coal industry. The report shows it’s possible because some states and some companies are already doing a lot to reduce their climate pollution.