Even as a fierce debate rages in Congress today about whether or not to handcuff the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to deal with coal-fired power plant pollution, a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project shows that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants in the U.S. rose 5.56 percent in 2010 over the year before, the biggest annual increase since the EPA began tracking emissions in 1995. The report is based on data from the EPA’s “Clean Air Markets” website, which tallies emission reports from electric generators.
Texas power plants led the pack in 2010, with nearly 257 million ton of CO2 emissions, as much as the next two states combined (Florida and Ohio), and more than seven times the total CO2 emissions from power plants in California. Despite a favorable climate for wind energy and falling natural gas prices, Texas opened three new coal plants toward the end of 2010, with a combined capacity of 2,156 megawatts. The 10 worst states for CO2 pollution identified in the report are Texas, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri.
Commenting on the report, EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said: “The industry’s allies on Capitol Hill are working hard to turn back the clock by repealing environmental standards for coal plants that are already many years overdue. Congress may weaken or even eliminate EPA’s ability to stop coal plant pollution, and block further study of climate change. But even the most powerful legislature in the world is subject to the laws of science, and global warming will not disappear because our politicians choose to pretend that it does not exist. “
Electricity generators released 2.423 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, compared to 2.295 billion tons in 2009, according to information available on EPA’s “Clean Air Markets” database. Power plant emissions are still below the high water mark of 2.565 million tons set in 2007. Last year’s rise was driven in part by a 4 percent net increase in overall generation for the 12 months ending in November of 2010, due to the economic recovery and unusually warm weather in some parts of the country.
Average global temperatures last year reached the 2005 level, the warmest year on record. CO2 is the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming; the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation in the U.S. accounts for more than one third of our nation’s total U.S. releases of CO2, and about five percent of CO2 emissions worldwide. Coal-fired boilers provided 45 percent of U.S. electricity in 2010, but were responsible for 81 percent of total CO2 emissions from electricity generation last year.
Other key report findings include the following:
• 50 coal-fired power plants accounted for 750 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2010, or about a third of the total. The two largest carbon polluters, the Scherer and Bowen power plants in Georgia, together released more than 48 million tons of CO2 in 2010. By comparison, emissions from all power plants in California were 37.1 million tons; in New York, 40 million tons; and in the six states of New England, 40.5 million tons.
• Coal-fired generation rose 5.2 percent in the 12 months ending November 30, 2010, growing at a faster pace than the overall 3 percent increase in net generation over the same period. But net generation of wind powered electricity, although a much smaller fraction of total output, rose from 73.6 to 92.7 million megawatts, for a 26 percent increase through the end of November last year. Net generation from natural gas fired plants, which release less than half as much carbon dioxide as coal plants on a per megawatt basis, rose 6.8 percent over the same period.
• Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from power plants decreased from 5.72 million to 5.11 million tons between 2009 and 2010, while nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions increased slightly over the same time span. Emissions of both pollutants have declined more than 50 percent over the past 10 years, though progress is uneven. For example, sulfur dioxide has actually increased slightly in Missouri, while declining more than 85 percent in Maryland. The overall trend is encouraging and emissions of SO2 and NOx should decline still further, unless the Republican House majority succeeds in derailing emission standards that are scheduled to take effect within the next four years.
• Nearly 4.5 gigawatts of new coal-fired electric generation came online in 2010, about half of that in Texas. But power companies have also announced plans to retire almost 12 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity within the next few years, including the announcement last month that Xcel would close nearly 900 megawatts of coal-fired capacity at four different power stations in Colorado. More announcements are expected this year, as companies wisely choose to shut down aging boilers, rather than pay to retrofit dirty and outdated plants to comply with federal air, waste and water standards.
• The phase out of the worst polluters would make room for cleaner technologies, like the 3.6 gigawatts of wind power installed in 2010, which could add momentum to the economic recovery while reducing reduce global warming and damage to the public’s health from dirty coal plants.