CO2 emission reductions: fracking, recession, renewables?

Lynne Kiesling

Several people have pointed out the remarkable fact that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion have fallen almost to 1995 levels. As the Institute for Energy Research noted,

The Energy information Administration reports that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are 2.4 percent less in 2011 than they were in 2010, and 9.1 percent less than in 2007 when they hit their peak level. Why are carbon dioxide emissions on a downward trend?

IER identifies the main hypotheses for this reduction: economic recession reduces energy use, high oil prices reduce petroleum consumption, switching from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, and some switching to renewables for electricity generation.

At The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal charts out the changes over time in the share of electricity generation coming from coal, natural gas, and petroleum. His main point is the dramatic pace of change in the past two years in the switch from coal to natural gas, a pace not usually seen in electricity generation. Ron Bailey at Reason points to the role that fracking has played in the drastic reduction of the absolute and the relative price of natural gas (and, as IER noted, EPA regulations increase the relative price of coal, exacerbating the price effect underlying the switch). Merrill Matthews at Investor’s Business Daily also attributed the reduction to the increase in fracking. When an energy source that’s got half the carbon emissions effect also gets cheaper in absolute terms as well as relative to coal, economic and environmental benefits are aligned (I will defer to Mike and his earlier posts on the environmental impacts of fracking itself.

Perhaps Walter Russell Mead is correct, and we’re heading toward a new American century with unanticipated energy abundance in the US, Canada, and offshore of Brazil.

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8 thoughts on “CO2 emission reductions: fracking, recession, renewables?

  1. The shift from coal to gas generation is a fact, but the reason for its dramatic speed is that this is mainly a shift in the dispatch of existing generators. The majority of the combined-cycle plants were installed between 2000 and 2005, but gas prices placed them clearly after coal in the loading order. Now we are seeing gas-fired generation and coal-fired generation running about the same in dispatch, suggesting that the variable cost is about the same for both. It’s not clear whether the remaining factor seeming to favor coal in the dispatch is the need for units to remain committed overnight and the higher minimum output levels required by environmental controls. Being dispatch driven, the shift could reverse just as easily if gas prices rise sufficiently, although the retirements in coal capacity are going to make a full return impossible.

  2. I believe you would be hard-pressed to find renewables, other than hydro, in the data.

    Wait until EPA moves to Phase 2 of CO2 emissions controls, requiring non-existent BACT technology to limit CO2 emissions to half the level achievable with state-of-the-art combined cycle generators.

    Coal is just the first of the fossil fuels to get its “turn in the barrel”. In the immortal words of my favorite American philosopher, Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

  3. You might be surprised… In the Eastern Interconnect states, wind generated about 2% of total energy generated in the 12 months ended April 2012 (from EIA 923). In the WECC states it was about 4% for the same period, and about 7% in Texas. Average wind capacity factor in TX looks to be around 35%, so that represents a pretty decent slug of capacity. “Other renewable” shows up at about 3% for the WECC states, but that category was a bit of a catch-all in my analysis, including wood, waste, landfill gas, geothermal, solar, etc. The same grab bag showed 1% in the East, zip in TX.

    Hydro in the East is small relative to the total, around 2% for the 12-month period. It’s huge in the West, around 27% of the total generation for the year. The *variation* in annual hydro output in the West is greater than the total hydro output in the east.

  4. D.O.U.G.,

    Sorry. What I meant was that you would be hard pressed to find the renewables impact, other than hydro, in the CO2 emissions data, largely because of the standby requirements.

  5. “Perhaps Walter Russell Mead is correct, and we’re heading toward a new American century with unanticipated energy abundance in the US, Canada, and offshore of Brazil.”

    And we can trust the NYTimes to complain bitterly about it every step of the way.

  6. What in the world does “dispatch” mean is this context? Are you some kind of educator or what? Can’t you write with a little more clarity? Please say what you mean.

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