advertisement

Washington, D.C. February 25, 2021 – New EPA data shows that greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants plummeted 38 percent from 2005 to 2020, even more rapidly than the goals in the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and achieved more than a decade early.

Driving the decline was a shift away from the burning of coal, driven by technological advances and cheaper prices for natural gas, wind, and solar power, as well as by environmental rules that forced coal power plants to pay for more pollution controls, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, “Greenhouse Gases from Power Plants: 2005-2020.”

“President Biden has set a goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by the year 2035, and while that may sound far-fetched, the history of the last 15 years shows that change is happening faster than people think – so there is reason for optimism,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

“When President Obama introduced his Clean Power Plan in 2015, it was widely attacked by industry as a dangerous over-reach,” said Schaeffer, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA. “But even after that particular rule was put on hold, the power industry cut its emissions by more than Obama envisioned – 38 percent, instead of 32 percent – and achieved it a decade before the deadline.”

The drop in carbon dioxide pollution from U.S. power plants from 2005 to 2020, as documented by new EPA data, was the more impressive because it came during a period of economic expansion, when the U.S. gross domestic product grew about 40 percent. Thanks to continued improvements in energy efficiency, the U.S. generated about the same amount of electricity in 2019 as it did in 2010 while the economy continued to grow.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Power Plants, 2005 to 2020

YearU.S. Power Plant CO2 Emissions Totals (Millions of Tons)YearsPercent Decline in U.S. Power Plant CO2 Emissions Totals
20052,5392005 to 201931%
20161,9822005 to 202038%
20191,7602016 to 201911%
20201,5722016 to 202021%

Source: EPA Clean Air Markets data

Some of the emissions decline from 2019 to 2020 was related to the COVID-19 recession and slightly reduced electricity generation last year (about 3 percent less in 2020 than 2019), according to federal figures.

But EIP’s report examined greenhouse gas pollution totals from the power industry before the pandemic – in 2019 – and compared them to the 2005 baseline and found that the decline over this period was still 31 percent, which was close to Clean Power Rule goal of a 32 percent decline but achieved 11 years early.  Renewable and gas-fired sources of electricity continued to grow last year despite the pandemic.

Even under President Trump, who called climate change a “hoax” and tried to weaken several regulations on fossil fuel industries (although courts blocked some of his EPA rule rollbacks), greenhouse gas emissions from power plants dropped 11 percent between 2016 and 2019 (before COVID-19) and 21 percent between 2016 and 2020, EPA numbers show.  This decline happened in part because Obama-era regulations on coal ash disposal, wastewater from power plants, and mercury air pollution became effective during the Trump Administration, despite his efforts to weaken them.

The emissions decline is significant because power plants are the second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S., contributing about 27 percent of the total, behind only transportation (which accounts for 28 percent of emissions). Manufacturing contributes 22 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S., commercial and residential buildings 12 percent, and agriculture 10 percent, according to EPA figures.

U.S. Power Plant Electricity Generation by Source

Thousand Megawatt Hours
20102019*2020*Percent Change 2010 to 2020
Total Generation4,125,0604,130,7684,001,064– 3%
Coal1,847,290992,695767,358– 58%
Natural Gas987,6971,563,6881,621,59164%
Renewables: wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass167,173437,768493,044195%
Nuclear806,968809,409720,048  – 11%

Source: Energy Information Administration (EIA) data
*Represents 12 months ending 11/30 for each year

The cause of the decline in greenhouse gases from the power industry was twofold, according to EIP’s report. Technological advances in the solar, wind, and natural gas industries drove down prices for these cleaner sources of electricity. Meanwhile, a growing number of power companies switched away from burning coal because costs associated with the fossil fuel gradually increased because of environmental regulations dating back before the Trump Administration.

Overall, the 10 states with the highest emissions in 2020 contributed more than half of the U.S. total of carbon dioxide released from power plants last year: 779 million tons out of the 1.5 billion total last year, according to EPA figures.

States With Highest Power Plant CO2 Emissions

Rank  State CO2 Emissions in 2020 (Millions of Tons)CO2 Emissions in 2005 (Millions of Tons)Percent Drop, 2005-2020
1Texas20025522%
2Florida10113626%
3Pennsylvania7812236%
4Ohio7513946%
5Indiana6513452%
6Missouri5778130%
7Kentucky5410046%
8West Virginia5388540%
9Alabama5091546%
10Illinois4610657%

Source: EPA Clean Air Markets data

Texas has by far the highest greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants, 200 million tons in 2020.  Although Texas Governor Greg Abbott last week falsely blamed wind power for the widespread blackouts in the state, in fact, natural gas and coal-fired generators lost more generation capacity during the storm than wind and solar.

EPA records list more than 1000 power plants across the U.S. But the records show that only 50 of the largest accounted for almost a third of the total carbon dioxide emissions from the whole sector in 2020 (478 million tons out of 1.57 billion in 2020).  That suggests that a few big polluters are having a disproportionate impact on the climate, according to EPA data.

For example, the nearly 19 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions released from a single power plant in 2020 — James H. Miller Jr. plant in Alabama – were equivalent to more than half of the electricity generated by all of the power plants in California

Top Ten U.S. Power Plants CO2 Emitters in 2020

RankStateFacility NameTons of COEmissions
1ALJames H Miller Jr18,846,905
2MOLabadie17,182,089
3OHGen J M Gavin15,074,332
4TXMartin Lake14,788,925
5TXOak Grove14,334,643
6MIMonroe14,276,708
7ILPrairie State Generating Station12,988,380
8INGibson12,455,766
9WYJim Bridger12,275,116
10WVJohn E Amos11,181,737

Source: EPA Clean Air Markets Data

For a copy of the full report, click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.