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U.S. Headed for Massive Decline in Carbon Emissions

TVA is not alone. Altogether, some 22 coal-fired power plants in 12 states are being replaced by wind farms, natural gas plants, wood chip plants, or efficiency gains. Many more are likely to close as public pressure to clean up the air and to cut carbon emissions intensifies. Shifting from coal to natural gas cuts carbon emissions by roughly half. Shifting to wind, solar, and geothermal energy drops them to zero.

State governments are getting behind renewables big time. Thirty-four states have adopted renewable portfolio standards to produce a larger share of their electricity from renewable sources over the next decade or so. Among the more populous states, the renewable standard is 24 percent in New York, 25 percent in Illinois, and 33 percent in California.

While coal plants are closing, wind farms are multiplying. In 2008, a total of 102 wind farms came online, providing more than 8,400 megawatts of generating capacity. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of 2009 and 57 more are under construction. More important, some 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) are awaiting access to the grid.

U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year. With new incentives, this rapid growth in rooftop installations on homes, shopping malls, and factories should continue. In addition, some 15 large solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are planned in California, Arizona, and Nevada. A new heat-storage technology that enables the plants to continue generating power for up to six hours past sundown helps explain this boom.

For many years, U.S. geothermal energy was confined largely to the huge Geysers project north of San Francisco, with 850 megawatts of generating capacity. Now the United States, with 132 geothermal power plants under development, is experiencing a geothermal renaissance.

After their century-long love-affair with the car, Americans are turning to mass transit. There is hardly a U.S. city that is not either building new light rail, subways, or express bus lines or upgrading and expanding existing ones.

As motorists turn to public transit, and also to bicycles, the U.S. car fleet is shrinking. The estimated scrappage of 14 million cars in 2009 will exceed new sales of 10 million by 4 million, shrinking the fleet 2 percent in one year. This shrinkage will likely continue for a few years.

Oil use and imports are both declining. This will continue as the new fuel economy standards raise the fuel efficiency of new cars 42 percent and light trucks 25 percent by 2016. And since 42 percent of the diesel fuel burned in the rail freight sector is used to haul coal, falling coal use means falling diesel fuel use.

But the big gains in fuel efficiency will come with the shift to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. Not only are electric motors three times more efficient than gasoline engines, but they also enable cars to run on wind power at a gasoline-equivalent cost of 75Β’ a gallon. Almost every major car maker will soon be selling plug-in hybrids, electric cars, or both.

In this new energy era carbon emissions are declining and they will likely continue to do so because of policies already on the books. We are headed in the right direction. We do not yet know how much we can cut carbon emissions because we are just beginning to make a serious effort. Whether we can move fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change remains to be seen.

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Lester R. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/books/pb4.

*Parts of this Plan B Update were published in the Washington Post on September 20, 2009.

Data and additional resources at www.earthpolicy.org
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2 comments
  1. Duncan

    Another postcard from fantasy land.

    Emissions dropped 9% because of the worst recession since the 1970’s. That’s a temporary drop, not a trend.

    0 coal plants have been closed or abandoned due to wind or solar power. Those are PR efforts, guaranteed never to be more than window-dressing. The new planned power plants are all “natural” gas, which is still a polluting, CO2-spewing fossil fuel. It’s a little less polluting and CO2-spewing than anthracite, but it’s still *not clean*.

    Anyone reading this article who’s serious about addressing global warming, the main answer has to be nuclear. Shunning nuclear because of misunderstandings about waste or lies about proliferation is no longer an attractive posture.

    We dithered enough when the republicans were in power. Now that we have the white house and congress, should we waste another decade pursuing solutions we already know won’t work?

  2. Bobby B.

    @Lester: There is activity that you can proudly label “positive”, however, Duncan is correct with his claim that the current emission reductions are largely due to the recession. Also, any “improvement” that you can claim in the U.S. is being more than offset by industrial growth in China, India, and the third world.

    @Duncan: I have to assume that you are a Democrat since you said “we have the white house and congress” above. I am a conservative and agree that nuclear needs to play a larger role in meeting tomorrow’s energy needs. However, I have never met a left-leaning Democrat who was pro-nuclear. Since you risk being maligned and excoriated by your fellow Democrats, it may be time to re-evaluate your politics. πŸ˜‰

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