Inequality isn’t just a matter of income: it plays out in carbon pollution as well. It turns out a mere one percent of U.S. power plants account for over 12 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions — and for about 30 percent of U.S. power sector emissions. That’s from a new report by Environment America, which highlights just how much sheer age and inertia have added to U.S. carbon pollution.
That one percent is actually 50 plants, all of them coal-fired. In fact, America’s single dirtiest power plant — Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer — dumped over 21 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2011. That’s more than all the energy-related emissions produced by the state of Maine that year.
And the disproportionate contribution of the dirtiest plants to greenhouse gas emissions continues on down the scale: in 2011, half of all the power sector’s carbon emissions came from the 100 dirtiest plants (98 of which are coal-fired). And 90 percent of all those emissions came from just the 500 dirtiest power plants. That’s out of almost 6,000 electricity generating facilities — renewable and fossil-fuel-powered alike — in the country.
All told, the 50 dirtiest power plants make up a sizable chunk of all U.S. carbon emissions:
According to Environment America’s numbers, to do its part in keeping global warming under two degrees Celsius, the United States will need to get its carbon emissions down 25 to 40 percent below 1990’s levels by 2020. And simply eliminating the carbon pollution produced by those 50 plants — by either replacing them with renewable sources or eliminating demand through improved energy efficiency — could bring those emissions down to 11 percent below 1990 levels. A major piece of the goal.
The reasons these plants produce such an outsized share of the greenhouse gas problem boil down to age and inefficiency. Three-fourths of U.S. coal plants were at least 30 years old in 2012 — the designed lifetime limit for most coal plants. But in many instances, coal companies have chosen to retrofit the plants to keep them going. About half the plants range from 40 to 60 years old, making them horribly inefficient and prone to the dirtiest levels of carbon pollution.
All of which stands as yet another reason to move forward with the Obama Administration’s proposed carbon regulations for both new and existing power plants. As a Bloomberg Editorial recently noted, coal-fired power plants have been sitting on their laurels when it comes to technology upgrades. The regulations will force them to take on the carbon sequestration and clean coal technologies, as well as plant upgrades and efficiency improvements, they should’ve been moving towards already.
As this latest report makes obvious, there’s a lot of low hanging fruit to pick here.