US benchmarking study reflects decarbonisation efforts

21 July 2021

Carbon dioxide emissions from the USA's 100 largest power producers fell 10% between 2019 and 2020, according to the latest in a series of benchmarking studies dating back to 1997. Nuclear accounted for over half of the zero-carbon resources which together generated about 38% of US electricity in 2020.

(Image: Entergy)

Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States is a collaborative effort between non-profit organisation Ceres; Bank of America; power producers Entergy and Exelon; and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It is authored by M. J. Bradley & Associates. The latest report is the 17th in the series which uses publicly reported data to compare the emissions performance of the 100 largest power producers in the USA. Together, they account for more than 80% of the sector's electricity generation and reported air emissions.

The decrease in power sector CO2 emissions is the largest year-on-year decrease since the report was first released in 1997, and 2020 power plant CO2 emissions were some 40% lower than their peak in 2007. The coronavirus pandemic may have been a contributing factor to the 2020 figures, the authors said, but the longer-term trend has been driven by factors including energy efficiency improvements and the displacement of coal by natural gas and renewable energy resources.

For the fifth consecutive year, natural gas was the leading source of electricity generation in the USA, accounting for 40% of generation, followed by nuclear (20%). Zero-carbon resources together generated about 38% of US electricity, an all-time high. Nuclear provided 52%  of the combined zero-carbon electricity generation, renewables 29% and hydro 19%.

Dan Bakal, Ceres' senior director for electric power, said the pace of decarbonisation is increasing as renewables come online to displace fossil fuels. "The growth in renewables has allowed us to separate economic growth from emissions, and this year represents one of the most dramatic decoupling points that we have seen," he said.

The share of clean electricity in the US generation mix will need at least to double by 2030 to meet goals set by the present US administration of 80% carbon-free energy by 2030 and 100% by 2035, Starla Yeh, director of the Policy Analysis Group in the Climate & Clean Energy programme at NRDC, said. "Now is the moment for the Biden Administration to act. It can accelerate this progress by putting in place a performance standard - either via new legislation or EPA action," Yeh said.

John Weiss, Entergy's vice president of sustainability and environmental policy, said the company is entering its third decade of voluntary emission reduction commitments but recognises there is still work to be done. "We are focused as an organisation on reducing the carbon footprint of our power generation portfolio, both by ensuring the continued, safe operation of our carbon-free nuclear fleet and significantly expanding our renewable generation assets," he said. "The report is a critical resource because it allows all of our stakeholders to accurately track, and hold us accountable for, changes in our emissions performance."

Kathleen Barron, Exelon's executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs and public policy, said the report is an important measure of progress made in addressing climate change by investing in renewable energy and existing carbon-free nuclear resources. "As the nation's largest producer of zero-emission electricity, we believe it's critical that policymakers and power companies work together to ensure that competitive power markets recognise the value of new and existing clean energy sources that are essential to addressing the climate crisis and reducing the health impacts of air pollution, which disproportionately affect underserved communities," she said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News