Carbon Pollution Data Put Power Plants Front And Center

by David Doniger, via NRDC’s Switchboard

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today released plant-by-plant data on 2011 emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping air pollutants.  The data show once again that power plants are the number one source of the carbon pollution that drives climate change, churning out more than 2.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2011.

The new data confirm that cleaning up the nation’s fleet of power plants should be the centerpiece of President Obama’s actions to reduce the threat of climate change.

In his inaugural address two weeks ago, the president vowed: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Power plants are far and away the number one source of carbon pollution, responsible for two-thirds of the 3.3 billion metric tons reported by all large industrial facilities, and for 40 percent of the nation’s overall CO2 emissions.  (Overall U.S. emissions of CO2 and other heat-trapping pollutants total about 6.8 billion metric tons, including those from transportation, other industries, and smaller sources.)

Total power plant CO2 emissions in 2011 were down about 4.5 percent from 2010, reflecting the shift towards burning more natural gas and less coal (a trend that continued in 2012 — see here, p.87 — and will show up in the plant-by-plant pollution reports EPA publishes next year).  Renewables and efficiency are growing fast – renewable investments increased by 23 percent from 2010 to 2011 according to the Energy Information Administration, and electric efficiency program budgets, for example, rose from $2.7 billion to $6.8 billion between 2007 and 2011.

NRDC issued an innovative plan in December showing how the president can use the Clean Air Act to cut the dangerous carbon pollution from the nation’s existing power plants, slowing climate change, saving lives, creating jobs, and growing the economy.

Our plan achieves huge health and climate benefits at surprisingly low cost, is fair and flexible for each state and power company, holds power bills down, and triggers huge job-creating clean energy investments that can’t be outsourced.

The NRDC plan cuts overall power sector carbon emissions 26 percent in 2020 and 35 percent in 2025, from 2005 levels.  Because of its fair and flexible design features, our plan achieves enormous climate protection and public health benefits worth $26-60 billion in 2020, at a reasonable cost of $4 billion.

You can check out which of the nation’s 1,594 power plants is in your backyard, and how much carbon pollution it puts out, using EPA’s handy map-based emission data website, which includes data from about 8,000 large facilities in nine industrial sectors.

You can search for power plants in your state or county, or look up any specific power station.  You can see which states, which plants, and which companies are the biggest polluters, and you can compare 2011 emissions with those from 2010, which EPA published last year. You can also look up the emissions of the other big polluters: oil and gas production facilities, refineries, chemical plants, and other industries.

Just as examples, I’ve listed the top 20 states and the power plants that emit more than 10 million tons per year in two tables at the end of this post.

We have this invaluable “right to know” information because Congress, in 2008legislation, directed EPA to collect carbon pollution data from every large industrial facility, and to make it publicly available in an easy-to-use form.

So, thanks to EPA’s greenhouse gas emission database, we know exactly where the carbon pollution is coming from.  And following NRDC’s power plant plan, we know how we can cut it down to size.

President Obama said eloquently in his inaugural address that “our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” and he spoke of our duty to “preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

Now, as he prepares his State of the Union address, we look to the president to launch specific plans to curb the carbon pollution from the power plant fleet, and from other big industries, using the laws Congress has already entrusted him to enforce.

— David Doniger is Policy Director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard and was reprinted with permission.

6 Responses to Carbon Pollution Data Put Power Plants Front And Center

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Would be even better if the govt built a couple of large thermal solar plants. Have a national policy about turning off all but minimal, essential lights at night. Add in a little help from the citizenry adjusting their thermostats by a degree of two and being careful not to waste electricity, and you are well on your way to a cleaner future, ME

  2. Joan Savage says:

    Clearly a national focus should be on reduction of power plant GHG emissions. Those top twenty states probably need support as well as prodding for giving up that smoking habit.

    On a side note, I was fascinated to see what the EPA map revealed about upstate New York State, where the institutional GHG emitters are commonly landfills, and the largest emitter near me is a resource recovery facility that separates out recyclables and burns the rest for energy.
    Compared to the coal-fired power plants their GHG contribution is only a wee bit, but still points to the value of waste stream reduction.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Yes and no.
    I could see solar thermal plants placed near the big hydro facilities that are getting hit by drought, as solar sources could tie into existing transmission lines and networks of purchasers.

    But, a chunk of electric usage in the big coal states is for industrial fabrication, so that needs a different suite of answers.

    As for residential use, already a lot of people have adjusted their thermostats to save money. Remember our 1%-99% economic issue here. It only takes a few McMansions with big inefficient refrigerators, vast areas to air condition or heat, and pool pumps, to use as much electricity as multiple smaller households.

    What makes it bizarre is that homeowners are charged less per unit the more we use (buying in bulk, as it were, like a business) rather than seeing the price per kwh or therm get stiffer with higher usage.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Not only bizarre but also blatant. No wonder the rich are so wasteful and get richer, ME

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That’s the purpose of capitalism, to take from the many to give to the few. We often neglect the element of stealing from the future, from the yet unborn generations who will live in a radically impoverished world because of today’s depredations. We are destroying the world and ourselves to feed the pathopsychologically insatiable greed of a tiny few.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yeah but we’ve got capitalism as well and where I live, all utilities have a sliding scale whereby the more you use, the more you pay, ME