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US emissions fell last year as natural gas, renewables gained market share

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Workers install solar panels onto a roof at the Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.
Source: AP Photo

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by nearly 3% last year as natural gas and renewables continued to expand their share of the country's power mix, market researcher BloombergNEF and The Business Council for Sustainable Energy said in a Feb. 13 report.

Natural gas-burning power plants produced 38% of the country's electricity in 2019, up from 36% a year earlier, while power generation from renewables, including hydropower, ticked up by a percentage point to 18%, according to the groups' 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook.

With coal's share falling and nuclear's edging up slightly, natural gas and zero-carbon energy sources accounted for about three-quarters of the U.S. power mix in 2019, compared to 54% in 2010. The year capped a decade in which the country "fundamentally overhauled how it produces, delivers, and consumes hydrocarbons, electrons, and heat," the report said.

"None of this decarbonization and transformation is costing more," said Ethan Zindler, head of the Americas at BloombergNEF. "In fact, it's costing less, and it is improving the U.S. economic competitiveness."

Pointing to gains made in energy efficiency, Zindler said the past 10 years also have shown that the country can grow its economy at a faster pace than its energy consumption, which can help to limit emissions. In 2019, U.S. gross domestic product expanded by 2.3% while energy consumption fell by 1% from a year earlier, according to the report.

The findings were released amid pledges by major energy companies to slash carbon emissions. BP PLC, Dominion Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp. all have said in recent days that they will achieve net-zero emissions by midcentury.

"We are seeing a new urgency in society to do something about climate change," Dan Whitten, vice president of public affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group, told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 13.

In the U.S. power sector, the use of natural gas has risen as increased production pushed down prices. Gas demand is expected to continue climbing as the country looks to displace more coal capacity and to balance higher levels of intermittent renewables, said Richard Meyer, managing director of energy analysis at the American Gas Association, a trade group.

Wind and solar installations grew by 18% and 12%, respectively, in 2019, and both industries are looking to massively increase the size of their fleets by 2030.

However, there is no guarantee that growth in renewables will be a boon for gas. Opposition has been growing to new gas plant construction due in part to concerns that the fossil fuel facilities could become stranded economically as the cost of renewables and batteries continues to fall.

Meyer dismissed such concerns, saying new gas plants "tend to be the best technology ... to be able to balance the electric grid more effectively and at lower costs compared with the status quo."

"So we are going to continue collectively to make these investments and move towards a lower-carbon future, and I see no inconsistency with the investments made today and that long-term future of a significantly lower carbon energy economy," Meyer said.