U.S. Power Sector Sees Biggest One-Year Drop in Emissions in More Than Two Decades

A solar installer.

A solar installer. Pexels

U.S. power sector emissions dropped 10 percent between 2019 and 2020, owing to greater energy efficiency, less reliance on coal, and the coronavirus pandemic suppressing demand for electricity, according to a new report. This represents the largest one-year drop since the report — compiled by power companies Entergy and Exelon, Bank of America, and environmental groups Ceres and the Natural Resources Defense Council — first began being published in 1997.

“The coronavirus pandemic may have been a contributing factor, but the drop in emissions in 2020 is part of a long-term trend fueled by increased renewable generation and coal-to-gas transitions,” said a statement released with the report.

From 2000 to 2020, power generation from wind, solar, and geothermal more than doubled. Along with declines in coal use, this helped drive a 37 percent drop in power sector emissions even as U.S. gross domestic product grew by 40 percent during that period, according to the report. Today, zero-carbon resources — including wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and nuclear power — provide around 38 percent of U.S. electricity.

President Biden has set a target of 100 percent zero-carbon power by 2035 as part of his larger climate plan. With an eye to falling costs for renewable electricity, some power providers have pushed for an interim goal of 80 percent clean power by 2030. Recent research shows the United States could reach 90 percent clean power by 2035 at no extra cost to consumers.

“Industry-wide, the pace of decarbonization is picking up, and as renewables come online to displace fossil fuels, we have the opportunity to accelerate that trend,” said Dan Bakal, senior director for electric power at Ceres. “The growth in renewables has allowed us to separate economic growth from emissions, and this year represents one of the most dramatic decoupling points that we have seen.”