In case you missed it, the U.S. Energy Information Agency recently announced that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity generation are now below 1993 levels and 21 percent below 2005 levels. This is a significant shift, which is largely attributable to coal-fired electricity generation being replaced with natural gas and renewable sources. A combination of technology, incentives, market forces, and regulatory changes are driving this transition away from coal. As with any large market movement, it’s no “one thing” that is causing the trend. But, it’s a reminder that collaboration between the government and the private sector – not a single top-down solution – is what brings about change.
In Washington State, CO2 emissions between 2005 and 2013 (most recent EPA state data available) decreased by 17 percent, which is remarkable considering how low our carbon footprint already is. Our state has the 4th-lowest CO2 emissions from our electricity sector than any other state in the country. And, it’s set to get much lower because Washington’s sole remaining coal-fired electricity generation plant will begin shutting down in the year 2020. That plant, located in Centralia, is the single-largest emitter of CO2 in the state.
The downward trajectory of CO2 emissions from electricity generation makes sense when you consider all of the factors that contribute to it. One of the biggest drivers is the dramatic increase in natural gas supplies, brought about by innovation in exploration. The combination of favorable market prices on natural gas and the much lower carbon content made it a clear alternative to coal, and that’s showing up in the emissions data.
But renewable sources are part of this story as well. Improvements in manufacturing, technology, and the electricity grid are bringing down the cost of wind and solar. While they still comprise a relatively small share of our overall electricity generation – and present challenges for grid integration due to their intermittency – their presence will only grow. This is particularly true as renewable energy battery technologies improve and storage allows us to expand their capacity and smooth out integration issues.
U.S. CO2 emissions are declining and that’s a trend that will only continue as we focus on everything from improving electricity generation, to expanding the availability of alternative transportation fuels, to creating more energy efficient residential and commercial buildings. Washington State has a rich history of collaborating on ways to reduce emissions, and it’s working here. It’s a lesson we need to remind ourselves of as some focus on expensive top-down, regulatory approaches as a single solution to the complex problem of reducing CO2 emissions. While reducing CO2 emissions is a goal we all share, embracing our history of collaboration will provide more success over time.