Energy Efficiency

Great news for the planet, carbon emissions are at lows not seen since the 90's.

Carbon Emissions in US at 20 Year Low, Coal’s Long Goodbye

Carbon emissions from energy use for the period of January-March 2012 declined to a level not seen since 1992 according to the latest figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Emissions for the first quarter of 2012 stood at 1.134 billion metric tons, down almost 8 percent from the same period last year

Warm weather, less coal, more natural gas

Carbon emissions at a 20 year lowAccording to the EIA report, the drop in emissions is due, in part, to one of the warmest winters on record. Energy consumption from all sources for heating was down during the first part of the year.  Coal, the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, was increasingly displaced by natural gas for electricity generation due to the precipitous drop in natural gas prices, reaching historic lows in 2012. The EIA also reports a decline in gasoline demand.

Coal’s long goodbye

The January to March period is typically when energy-related carbon emissions are at their highest due to fossil fuel demand for home heating. The double-whammy from the weather and the price of gas this year fueled a sharp decline in coal use. Emissions from burning coal dropped 18 percent from the first quarter of 2011 to the same period in 2012, to 387 million metric tons, the lowest emissions from coal in the US since 1983.

Ninety percent of the coal extracted in the US is used for electrical generation. The overall share of coal’s contribution to generation was down 34 percent for March of 2012, a 39-year record. Plant owners and operators are shifting away from coal not only because of the falling price of natural gas, but at a realization of the true cost of coal.

The EIA reports that power companies currently plan to retire 175 coal plants between 2012 and 2016, totaling 8.4 percent of capacity or 27 gigawatts of electricity. There will almost certainly be additional coal capacity retired in coming years as EPA regulations to limit carbon and mercury emissions from coal lead to retirement of the oldest, most polluting and inefficient plants.

Now is the time to accelerate the transition toward an ever-greater share of our energy generation from clean renewable energy sources, distributed through a resilient smart-grid.

Tom Schueneman is a freelance environmental writer and founder of


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