US carbon pollution set for 2015 drop as coal plants close

Analysts say decline of coal and rise of wind and solar will lead to significant fall in emissions this year

(Pic: UN Photos)

(Pic: UN Photos)

By Ed King

US efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions look set for a huge boost this year, with carbon pollution from the power sector set to fall to its lowest level since 1994.

Record numbers of US coal-fired power plants are set to close this year, and analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) say this will likely see power sector emissions drop 15.4% below 2005 levels.

Research published today indicates 23GW, 7% of US coal capacity, will come offline due to a combination of low gas prices, new mercury emission standards and the age of closing power plants.

“On an emissions rate basis (t/MWh), 2015 will be the cleanest year in over 60 years for which we have historical data,” says the report.

At the same time investment in renewables is rising fast, with a new 18 gigawatts (GW) of clean energy due to starting feeding into the US grid this year.

BNEF says new solar installations will hit an “all-time high” of 9.1GW, led by California, while new wind build will hit 8.8GW, with a third of new projects in Texas.

“More interesting than the single-year drop in emissions are the ‘structural’ impacts that will live on for decades,” said BNEF’s William Nelson, head of north american analysis.

“Emissions can rise or fall year-to-year based on weather anomalies and volatile fuel prices – but in 2015, we’ll take a giant, permanent step towards decarbonizing our entire fleet of power plants.”

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Cutting its use of coal is a one of the main strategies in the Obama administration’s domestic and international efforts to address climate change.

The US has a 2020 goal of curbing greenhouse gas emissions 17% on 2005 levels, and a 2030 target recently submitted to the UN of 28% cuts on 2005 levels.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2014 38% of US energy-related CO2 emissions came from the power generation sector. Of that 76% of emissions were from coal, with 22% from gas.

The US coal power sector is set to face further restrictions once the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean power plan is finalized later this year.

Report: Climate plans will survive Republican attacks, say officials

The EPA says it will help cut CO2 emissions from the power sector 30% on 2005 levels. The law is set to rule out the use of all but the most efficient coal plants.

Critics in the Republican party say they will try and block the new legislation, which is being enforced under the existing Clean Air Act.

Lead Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who represents a staunch coal-mining constituency, has written to federal states suggesting they refuse to comply with the rules.

Meanwhile, the two Republicans to have declared they will run for the 2016 presidency – Ted Cruz and Rand Paul – have both expressed doubts over the veracity of climate science.

Civil society pressure

Separately, the charitable arm of ex New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s business holdings has announced it will invest an extra $30 million in efforts to replace half the US coal fleet with clean energy alternatives by 2017.

The funds, which will be directed into the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, aim to back what Michael Bloomberg says is US leadership among industrialised countries in ditching fossil fuels.

“Thanks to the community leaders who have spearheaded this work, the U.S. led every industrialized nation in reducing carbon emissions last year,” he said.

“But much more work remains, and today we are doubling down on what has proven to be an incredibly successful strategy for improving public health and fighting climate change.”

According to the Sierra Club, every 50GW of coal power removed from the grid prevents more than 3,600 deaths and 60,000 asthma attacks, saving $2.3 billion in health care costs every year.

Earlier this week the White House launched its own health and climate drive, warning that rising temperatures would lead to more smog, allergies and deaths among vulnerable members of the community.

It argued the new clean power plan would offer US$55-93 billion in “annual net benefits” from reducing pollution levels.

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