Climate Compass Blog
Back in 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that, under current policies, U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions would increase nearly 18 percent by 2015.
They did not.
In fact, emissions fell – by more than 12 percent. So we were off by 30 percent.
As Yogi Berra may have said: It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. We didn’t know then the impact a variety of market and policy factors would have on our energy mix. And we don’t know now all of the factors that could help us meet, or exceed, our Paris Agreement pledge – to reduce our net emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
U.S. emissions have fallen over the last 10 years due to factors that include:
- Growth in renewable energy
- Level electricity demand
- Improved vehicle efficiency
- A shift in electricity generation from coal to natural gas.
An unanticipated abundance of cheap natural gas has transformed the U.S. electricity mix. Coal-fired generation has fallen from 50 to 33 percent of the mix, while less carbon-intensive, natural gas-fired generation has risen from 19 to 33 percent.
The last 10 years also included a major economic downturn, which in 2009 drove electricity sales below 2005 levels. Despite a return to positive economic growth in the following year that continues through today, electricity sales have remained flat. Declines in manufacturing; improvements in energy efficiency, including in buildings, lighting, and appliances; warmer winters; and increased use of on-site generation like rooftop solar panels are the likely drivers.
What will happen in the next 10 years?
Certainly, the electric power sector will continue to decarbonize. It is not unreasonable to assume that natural gas will play an even larger role, while coal will play a substantial albeit diminishing role in the electricity mix.
Here are some other factors that are hard to quantify now, but could affect how quickly we transition to a clean energy future:
More zero-emission electricity
Increased clean and renewable electricity production, spurred by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and congressional tax credit extensions for wind and solar, could reduce renewable power costs, which have already been dropping. In other words, economies of scale could lead to higher deployments and lower emissions than currently forecast.
Wind and solar generation have grown nearly twelve-fold since 2005, nearly eight times greater than what was expected back then. In the 2016 Annual Energy Outlook, wind and solar generation are projected to increase 2.5 times by 2025. Historical precedent would tend to suggest that this is a highly conservative estimate.
However, sustained low prices in wholesale power markets from low natural gas prices and a proliferation of renewable electricity sources could harm another zero-emission source: nuclear. In particular, we could see natural gas continue to replace zero-emission merchant nuclear plants, moving us in the wrong direction, unless remedies are implemented. Also, low wholesale prices would tend to discourage new renewable generation.
More zero-emission vehicles
Electric vehicles (EVs) make up less than 1 percent of new U.S. car sales. But as their prices drop and range expands, the adoption rate could accelerate over the next 10 years, spurring important reductions from what is now the largest emitting sector. In one sign of growing demand, more than 400,000 people have put down a deposit for a Tesla Model 3 EV that won’t even be on the market until 2018.
Advances in battery storage could drive the transformation of the transportation sector and would provide obvious benefits to the electric power sector as well.
Meanwhile, automakers are exploring alternative fuels: natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells, and biofuels. And more than a dozen states and nations have formed a Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Alliance to encourage ZEV infrastructure and adoption.
Action by cities, the magnitude of which is not easily captured by national macroeconomic models, could lead to greater than anticipated emission reductions. Starting with the groundbreaking Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2005, initiatives are evolving to connect cities with each other to exchange knowledge and achieve economies of scale for new technologies.
More cities are exploring ways to generate additional reductions by 2025. These include: more energy-efficient buildings; better tracking of electricity and water use, innovative financing for more efficient generation, appliances and equipment; and improved public transportation and promotion of electric vehicles.
Last, but not least, steps taken by companies beyond regulatory requirements could produce greater emission reductions than we can foresee. Companies are investing in clean energy projects, reducing emissions throughout the supply chain, establishing internal carbon pricing, and helping customers reduce their carbon footprint. More than 150 companies have signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge.
C2ES and The U.S. Conference of Mayors are teaming up to encourage city and business leaders to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine how effective we can be when we coordinate climate action.
A 2015 UNEP report suggests that beyond each countries’ individual commitments to the Paris Agreement, actions by sub-national actors across the globe can result in net additional contributions of 0.75 to 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.
The United States has significantly reduced its greenhouse gases over the past decade, and has put in place policies ensuring continued reductions in the years ahead. With so many resources and tools at our disposal, it is clear that we can meet or exceed our climate goal. The only uncertainty is how we will do it.
Event: Innovation to Power the Nation
Technology, policy, and business experts discuss how innovative technology and policy can help us reach our climate goals at Innovation to Power the Nation (and World): Reinventing Our Climate Future at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday, June 29. Watch the livestream.
Speakers include Patent and Trademark Office Director Michelle K. Lee; C2ES President Bob Perciasepe; Dr. Kristina Johnson, CEO of Cube Hydro Partners; Nate Hurst, Chief Sustainability & Social Impact Officer at HP; and Dr. B. Jayant Baliga, inventor and director of the Power Semiconductor Research Center at North Carolina State University.
Cities often lead the way on greenhouse gas reductions, even though they rarely control the operation of the power plants that supply their energy. So how can city initiatives work together with the federal Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants?
One option is the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included this early-action program as part of the Clean Power Plan and recently released program design details.
The program is voluntary. If a state chooses to participate, then certain renewable and energy efficiency projects can receive early action credits, including a federal match from EPA. These credits can be used for complying with the Clean Power Plan, so they provide additional financial incentives for clean energy projects.
While we can’t know the full value of the CEIP without knowing how many states participate and how power plants in those states comply with the Clean Power Plan, C2ES estimates the CEIP could drive up to $7.4 billion of private spending on clean energy projects across the country.
A key aspect of the CEIP is its support of project development in low-income communities. Solar and energy efficiency projects in these communities receive double credit, and a special reserve pool is created to make sure these projects can compete with large renewables for credits. This type of project development can support four key goals of city leaders:
1. Taking action to fight climate change;
2. Reducing energy bills for low-income residents;
3. Bringing jobs and investment to the community; and
4. Delivering co-benefits of renewable energy like cleaner air and water.
City leaders have the know-how to channel CEIP credits to their communities, but they will need to partner with their states and businesses to succeed.
Once states choose to participate, city leaders can help articulate the benefits of the CEIP. Cities can also provide data and support to project developers to streamline CEIP projects, especially low-income community projects that often face more hurdles. For example, they could help businesses locate communities that would host projects, work with utilities to identify potential projects, and build public-private partnerships to finance renewable energy.
How does it work?
Step 1: EPA creates a matching pool for each state. The amount of CEIP match available is limited, and EPA will divide the total pool among the states before the program gets started. If a state does not use its full share of the match, those credits will be retired. In other words, the CEIP is use it or lose it. Half of each state’s pool is reserved for low-income community projects and the other half for renewable projects like wind, solar, geothermal, or hydroelectricity.
Step 2: Interested states include the CEIP as part of their implementation approach. States must submit a plan to EPA that details how they will implement the Clean Power Plan. States that opt-in to the CEIP would have to declare that as part of their plan, and then they could receive the EPA match. If states opt out, then clean energy projects within their borders would not be eligible.
Step 3: New clean energy projects are developed in participating states. CEIP credits go only to new projects – renewable projects that start generating electricity on or after Jan. 1, 2020 or low-income energy-efficiency projects that start delivering energy savings on or after Sept. 6, 2016.
Step 4: New clean energy projects benefit the community. CEIP credits are awarded for electricity generated (renewables) or saved (energy efficiency) in 2020 and 2021. Starting in 2022, these projects are eligible for other financing opportunities under the Clean Power Plan.
Step 5: CEIP projects receive tradeable credits. States will verify how much clean energy a project is producing, then distribute the appropriate amount of CEIP credits (half from the state’s pool and half from EPA) to eligible projects. The project developers that receive the credits can sell them to power plants that need them to comply with the Clean Power Plan. CEIP projects don’t need the credits themselves because only fossil fuel-fired power plants are covered by the regulation. The value of CEIP credits will be determined by how power plants reduce their emissions.
The dates in the CEIP design details may change, depending upon the outcome of the legal challenge against the Clean Power Plan.
The CEIP will be open for public comment this summer. Once finalized, it will help promote new clean energy development in communities across the country. Its focus on low-income communities aligns it with other city priorities in addition to fighting climate change. The short timeframe of the program will make public-private collaboration a key to success in attracting CEIP projects.
C2ES, through our Alliance for a Sustainable Future with The U.S. Conference of Mayors, can be a valuable resource on climate policies like the CEIP. By communicating technical information in a meaningful way and facilitating the conversations between cities and businesses, we can advance clean and efficient energy.
When it comes to carbon capture, innovative technology exists, but the financial and policy support needed to accelerate its deployment is lacking.
At a recent Carbon Capture, Utilization & Storage (CCUS) Conference attended by leaders of industry, federal and state agencies, and environmental organizations, one theme that emerged is the importance of policy parity with other low- and zero-carbon energy technologies like wind and solar to advance widespread deployment of CCUS technology.
We know that CCUS technology is essential to meet our mid-century climate goals. In fact, without CCUS, mitigation costs will rise by 138 percent.
Exchange Monitor, the organizer of the CCUS conference, noted that it is “an extremely important technology, enjoying a bit more spotlight on the heels of the Paris climate change agreement.” Many nations specifically referenced CCUS technology in their Nationally Determined Contributions to the agreement, including Canada, China, Norway, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
Even as nations diversify their energy portfolios, fossil fuels are expected to serve 78 percent of the world’s energy demand in 2040. The most recent Energy Information Administration analysis suggests that global energy consumption is expected to rise 48 percent over the next 30 years.
Clearly, there will be a need for CCUS technology to be widely deployed, in both the power and industrial sectors. Industry, including refining and chemicals, steel, and cement production, contributes roughly 25 percent of global emissions and there are no practical alternatives to CCUS for achieving deep emissions reduction in this sector.
CCUS project development is not on track, however. The most recent International Energy Agency (IEA) Tracking Clean Energy Progress report notes: “No positive investment decisions were taken on CCUS projects, nor did any advanced planning begin in 2015, resulting in a fall in the total number of projects in the development pipeline.”
Since a project can take five to 10 years from conception to operation, financial and policy support is critical now, the EIA adds. The report concludes: “As with other low-carbon technologies, the market for CCS projects in most regions will be created by policy and regulation.”
That conclusion was echoed at the conference by Dr. Julio Friedmann, the Senior Advisor for Energy Innovation at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. He said the financing challenge for CCUS projects “is fundamentally a policy issue; this is not a technology issue.” Barry Worthington, Executive Director of the U.S. Energy Association, emphasized at the conference that “providing identical fiscal tools for all no-carbon/low-carbon technologies reduces market distortion.”
Policies that would accelerate the deployment of CCUS technology include:
- Stronger federal and state incentives for carbon dioxide enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR)
- The inclusion of CCUS technology in state clean energy standards
- Funding for continued CCUS research, development, and demonstration
- A price on carbon
These policies would help overcome the barriers that innovative CCUS projects face, such as higher cost and higher perception of risk by investors. The cost reductions and performance improvements experienced by the wind and solar energy industries demonstrate that these kinds of policies (tax incentives, renewable portfolio standards, etc.) can accelerate the deployment of low- and zero-carbon energy technologies.
What policy parity means is sustained public sector support through the process of achieving a declining cost curve: from deploying initial first-of-a-kind CCUS technologies in both power and industrial applications to driving deployment of next-of-a-kind projects. It also means sustaining R&D on CCUS technologies so that low- and zero-carbon energy technologies are ultimately competitive without incentives.
As more CCUS projects come online, opportunities for cost reductions become apparent. SaskPower estimates it can save up to 30 percent on future CCUS units at the Boundary Dam power plant.
Finally, there is significant support for accelerated deployment of CCUS technology. C2ES co-convenes the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative, which is a broad and unusual coalition of executives from the electric power industry; state officials; and environmental and labor representatives, all of whom support improved policy for CCUS technology in the United States. Based on our experience, and as expressed at the conference, policy parity needs to be an essential component of future federal and state efforts on climate to meet our agreed-upon goals and to match the growing need for CCUS technology.
Separately, cities and businesses have been showing tremendous leadership in reducing the emissions responsible for climate change and building resilience to climate impacts.
Imagine what they can do together.
By sharing research and analysis, building crucial connections, and fostering innovative partnerships, cities and businesses can accelerate progress toward our climate goals – progress we sorely need.
That’s why the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and The U.S. Conference of Mayors are teaming up to create the new Alliance for a Sustainable Future. This alliance will help mayors and business leaders develop concrete approaches to reduce carbon emissions, speed deployment of new technology, and implement sustainable development strategies.
City and business action and input are vital as states consider how they will implement the Clean Power Plan, and as the U.S. works toward its Paris Agreement goal to reduce emissions 26-28 percent by 2025.
Through the Alliance, we plan to:
- Improve city and business engagement with state climate planning to add to our overall emissions-cutting efforts.
- Provide a forum for problem solving among cities, businesses, and states, and build platforms for more public-private partnerships on climate and sustainability.
- Identify best practices for coordinated action by cities, businesses, and states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deal with the consequences of climate impacts.
About the alliance
C2ES has long been a voice for pragmatic policy and a catalyst for constructive business engagement on climate change. Our Business Environmental Leadership Council, created in 1998, brings together industry-leading, mostly Fortune 500 companies across a range of sectors that are committed to climate action and support mandatory climate policy. C2ES has also been working closely with states and cities, including on implementation options for the Clean Power Plan.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has long been a leader on climate change. In 2005, more than 1,000 mayors signed the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, a landmark pledge to take local action to reduce carbon emissions. That pledge was updated in 2014 to also focus on making cities more resilient to climate impacts. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has encouraged federal and state cooperation with mayors to accelerate clean energy and energy efficiency.
Cities and companies in action
As the Alliance’s co-chair, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, said: “Cities are our nation’s economic powerhouses, making them a key proving ground for policies to increase energy efficiency, deploy clean energy, and foster clean transportation.”
Cities are taking the lead in advancing more energy-efficient buildings; tracking electricity and water use, setting emissions reduction targets, and promoting electric vehicles. These programs make for stronger and more resilient communities and economies.
A number of cities, including Los Angeles, are even setting a goal of being powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
Companies are investing in clean energy projects, reducing emissions throughout the supply chain, establishing internal carbon pricing, and helping customers reduce their carbon footprint. More than 150 companies have signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, committing to steps such as saving energy and reducing water usage.
These steps, over and above regulatory requirements, could produce greater emission reductions than we can foresee.
Taking the next step
Climate change is global, but the impacts are local, and our communities are already experiencing them, including more frequent and intense heat waves, heavy downpours, and rising sea level. How we reduce climate-altering emissions will have implications for economic development, public health, and community wellbeing, especially for our most vulnerable populations.
Cities and businesses both have a strong interest in cost-effective approaches. Local-level and business innovation is critical to the success of the Clean Power Plan and other state and federal policies to shrink our carbon footprint. And these successes will point the way to a national strategy to help us transition to a clean energy future.
Separately, cities and businesses have already been demonstrating climate leadership. Together, we can put our foot on the accelerator and reach our goals.
In fact, for the first time since 1979, U.S. cars, buses, trucks and airplanes emitted more carbon dioxide than U.S. power plants.
Based on the latest available rolling 12-month average, the electricity sector emitted 1,868 million metric tons (MMt) of carbon dioxide while the transportation sector emitted 1,876 MMt.
For the past 10 years, electricity emissions have been declining due to a number of factors, including growth in renewable energy, level electricity demand, and a shift from coal to natural gas. Since 2005, coal-fired generation has fallen from 50 to 33 percent of the mix, while less carbon-intensive natural gas-fired generation has risen from 19 to 33 percent.
Transportation emissions had been largely flat since the early 2000s, likely due to increasing vehicle efficiency and a combination of social trends (e.g. growing cities, ageing population, increasing telework). But emissions have begun to creep up in the past couple of years.
Some of this uptick can be attributed to much lower oil prices over the past 12 months. But even before oil prices dropped, the total number of vehicle miles traveled was increasing. So, even though our vehicles are getting more fuel efficient over time thanks to corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, the increase in vehicle use is moving emissions in the wrong direction.
Over the long-term, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that transportation emissions will decline as stricter vehicle emission standards come into force for cars and for trucks. As a result of these policies, we expect the adoption rate of vehicles with improved fuel economies, including zero-emission vehicles, will begin to accelerate in the next decade.
At the same time, EIA sees electricity sector emissions continuing to fall, especially as states begin to comply with targets set out in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and as the industry responds to other zero-emission incentives like the recently extended renewable tax credits.
Over the next 25 years, the rate of emission decline in the power sector is expected to be greater than in the transportation sector, so it looks like transportation will remain the largest emitting sector for the foreseeable future.
The good news is that carbon dioxide emissions will be declining in the two largest emitting sectors, due in part to strong policies to encourage a low-carbon future.
However, it’s also clear that additional policies and actions will be required for all economic sectors to see larger emissions reductions, which scientists say are necessary by mid-century in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.