From parachute pants and Rick Astley to U.S. power plants - Energy Factor
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From parachute pants and Rick Astley to U.S. power plants

Ken Cohen - 08/10/2015

The news seems to slow down in early August as families take summer vacation before the start of a new school year. So it’s possible you might have missed an extraordinary announcement from the U.S. Energy Information Administration last week that – once again – shows the transformative power of the shale revolution.

The EIA headline says it all:  “Monthly power sector carbon dioxide emissions reach 27-year low in April.”

That’s right. Carbon dioxide emissions in April for the electric power generating industry fell to lows that have not been seen since 1988, a period when Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush were running for president, Rain Man and Beetlejuice packed theaters, and Rick Astley tore up the charts declaring he was “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

This news is particularly noteworthy when you consider how much larger the U.S. economy is today compared to back then.

Today, the U.S. has 319 million energy consumers. That’s 30 percent more people than the 245 million the U.S. had in 1988. Meanwhile the United States’ GDP today is roughly twice what it was 27 years ago. The total amount of electricity generated in the U.S. is roughly 50 percent higher.

Yet our CO2 emissions from power plants are at the same levels registered in 1988.

One of the major reasons for this, of course, is natural gas. The abundant supplies coming from America’s shale fields – thanks to fracking – have allowed for large-scale fuel switching from coal to gas in many U.S. power plants. (They have helped put money in consumers’ pockets, as well.)

In fact, as I noted last month, in April the U.S. generated more electricity from natural gas than from coal for the first time ever. That’s a change from just a decade ago, when coal provided about half of the nation’s electricity, with natural gas providing just one-fifth.

Since burning natural gas produces up to 60 percent fewer emissions than burning coal, this fuel switching was bound to have a profound effect on our nation’s emissions profile.

Indeed, as EIA notes, consumption of natural gas in the electric power sector accounted for 36.4 million metric tons of CO2. Coal use accounted for 89.4 million metric tons.

There are a lot of reasons we wouldn’t want to return to the era of brick-sized cell phones and parachute pants, but last week’s news about our lower emissions offers a nice walk down memory lane.

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