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Energy Technologies, Markets, and Government Policies' Major Impacts on U.S. Carbon Emissions, 2005-2016

John Miller's picture
Owner-Consultant Energy Consulting

During my Corporate career I provided manufacturing with power generation facilities’ technical-operations services and held different technical and administrative management positions.  In order...

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  • Feb 6, 2017


The U.S. continues to make fairly good progress in reducing its fossil fuels consumption and associated carbon emissions since the mid-2000’s. This article updates a previously posted analysis,  which detailed government policies, technologies and market factors that have most enabled the U.S. to continue reducing its total fossil fuels consumption and carbon emissions.

2005-16 U.S. Carbon Emissions – U.S. carbon emissions from fossil fuels consumption peaked just before the 2007-09 Great Recession. Following the recession and the relatively slow economic recovery, U.S. fossil fuels carbon emissions have continuously declined on average.

Figure 1

Data Source – EIA MER carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels consumption.

U.S. fossil fuels’ carbon emissions nearly peaked at 6,000 million metric tons per year (MMT/yr.) in 2005. Total carbon emissions have declined by 935 MMT/yr. or 16% 2005-16. This level of carbon emissions’ reduction represents over half of the U.S. Paris Climate Agreement pledge made late last year.

The reduction in U.S. fossil fuels carbon emissions has been primarily due to a large decline in coal consumption. Coal consumption has declined due to the combination of ‘fuels-switching’ to lower carbon power generation sources and accelerated retirements of Coal Power plants. To better understand the impacts of different government policies, energy technologies and market related factors lets first review the changes of fossil fuels demand and carbon emissions for each U.S. ‘End-Use’ Sector.

Figure 2

Data source – EIA MER. Note: EIA data has been modified by separating the Power Sector’s carbon emissions from the four End-Use Sectors’ total emissions. The carbon emissions for the Transportation Sector are based on motor fuels consumption and the Power, Industrial, Residential & Commercial Sectors emissions are based primarily on heating fuels consumption.

The Power Sector’s reduction in carbon emissions is the largest contributor to total reduced U.S. carbon emissions 2005-16; 71% of the total reduction. This emission reduction is primarily due to a combination of ‘fuels switching’ to lower carbon natural gas fuel and expansion of renewable power generation. The Industrial Sector is the second largest contributor to reduced U.S. carbon emissions 2005-16; 11% of the total. This carbon emission reduction has been unfortunately due primarily to the decline in U.S. Manufacturing Sector’s production output and the increased imports.

The Transportation Sector’s carbon emissions declined significantly following the 2007-09 Recession, up to 2012. This was due to a combination of increased vehicle’s fuel efficiency (CAFE) and renewable fuels (RFS2) standards, and, reduced vehicle’s usage or decrease in average vehicle miles travelled (VMT) 2008-12.  Total petroleum motor fuels consumption and associated carbon emissions has unfortunately begun increasing significantly 2012-16. This has been due to increased vehicles purchases & registrations (largely SUV’s and Light Duty Trucks recently), increasing VMT and total increased fuels consumption by the growing U.S. population (2.3 million per year average growth 2005-16). Fortunately, the net Transportation Sector’s overall decline of carbon emissions contributed to 9% of total U.S. emissions reduction, 2005-16.

The Residential Sector’s natural gas and petroleum heating fuels consumptions also declined significantly over the past decade and contributed to 7% of total U.S. carbon emissions reduction 2005-16. This was due primarily to increased efficiency technologies and possibly improved Resident’s consumption behaviors. Increased Residential energy efficiency has been support by numerous State and Federal energy efficiency policies and programs (EERE for example). Although the Commercial Sector’s fossil fuels consumption should have been influenced-reduced by similar EERE policies, its reduction in carbon emissions only contributed to < 2% of total U.S. reduced carbon emissions 2005-16.

Major Contributing Factors to Reduced U.S. Carbon Emissions – Since 2005 total U.S. fossil fuels consumption and mix have changed very significantly. These changes have been strongly influenced by a number of factors, including market price, recent technology developments, and past-recent Government policies & regulations.

Figure 3

Data source – EIA MER.

‘Fuels switching’ from coal to lower carbon natural gas in the Power Sector has clearly been the largest contributing factor towards total U.S. carbon emissions reduction 2005-16. During 2005-16 coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ has reduced total U.S. fossil fuels carbon emissions by 50%. Major contributing factors for making the switch from coal-to-natural gas have been heating fuel market prices, shutdown-retirement of over 30% of Coal Power Plants and a 7% increase in Natural Gas Power Plants since 2005. The Coal Power Plant shutdowns are largely the result of substantially growing compliance costs for the EPA regulations including the Clean Air Mercury Rule and the future likely impacts of the developing EPA Clean Power Plan.

Natural Gas Power Plants ‘net generation’ has grown due to both increased utilization of available Power Plants’ capacities and construction of new-higher efficiency Power Plants. The major factor to increased coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ has been almost a 2/3rds. drop in natural gas market prices since 2005; while coal prices remained fairly constant during the same period.

Wind Power is the next largest contributing factor towards U.S. reduced carbon emissions. During 2005-16, the combination of Federal and State regulations created major incentives and/or mandates for the construction, power generation, and production tax credits for new-recently built Wind Power. Total net Wind Power generation grew 13-fold 2005-16 and the percentage of total U.S. electric power net generation from Wind Power increased from 0.4% (2005) up to 5.7% in 2016. Wind Power contributed to 14% of U.S. total carbon emissions reduction, 2005-16.

The reduction in the fossil fuels and power consumption in primarily the Residential & Commercial Sectors was third largest (13% of the total) contributing factor for reduced U.S. carbon emissions 2005-16. This was due to a combination of increased energy efficiency technologies installations and use, and, other factors that encouraged and/or led to reduced fossil fuels consumption by most Consumers in the Residential and Commercial Sectors. Part of the reduced energy consumption was likely due in-part to the relatively slow recovery from the 2007-09 Great Recession and Middle Class average wage stagnation; which limits most Residents’ discretionary income during this period.

The next factor that contributed to 11% of total reduced U.S. carbon emissions 2005-16 was reduced fossil fuels and power consumption of the Industrial Sector. While efficiency improvements likely contributed to a small fraction of reduced fossil fuels consumption and carbon emissions, the major impact was unfortunately due to reduced U.S. domestic ‘durable goods’ production & manufacture. This included slowdown of many Industries/Manufacturing facilities’ outputs such as steel production, building materials & hardware-parts fabrication, vehicles & appliances manufacturing, etc. These and other domestically produced-manufactured durable goods have been overwhelmingly replaced by increased imports, and trade deficits.

One factor rarely covered in the Media is the fact that U.S. Industries are among the most energy efficient and least carbon intensive compared to most off-shore sources of imported durable goods from countries such as China. The net result has been very significant and growing ‘carbon leakage’. In other words, the reduction in the U.S. Industrial Sector’s durable goods production 2005-16 may have reduced U.S. carbon emissions by about 100 MMT/yr., but at the expense of shifting these carbon emissions to other countries, primarily China. The full lifecycle impact of shutting down U.S. domestic durable goods production with generally lower efficiency Chinese durable goods imports, and shipping them from Asia-to-North America via marine transport, has increased ‘Total World’ carbon emissions. This has most likely resulted in a net-increase of World carbon emissions by an additional 25-50 MMT/yr. (added leakage) greater than if the U.S. Consumer durable goods had been produced domestically.

The next largest factor (8%) to reduced U.S. carbon emissions 2005-16 has been largely due to the Transportation Sector’s compliance with Federal regulations. The combination of increased Renewable Fuels (blending) and CAFE standards have had the largest impacts on reducing vehicles petroleum motor fuels consumption and offsetting the growing Population’s use of transportation vehicles; lighter duty cars & trucks, and heavier duty/commercial trucks, railroad, and marine. To possibly further reduce future U.S. carbon emissions the EPA has substantially increased future CAFE standards and more recently began developing new efficiency regulations for heavier duty vehicles. Despite expanding these vehicle related carbon emission regulations, the growth in Transportation Sector vehicle fleets and usage (increased VMT), resulted in increasing petroleum consumption since 2012.

Increases in Nuclear, Solar and Hydropower+biomass+Geothermal Power net generation(s) have reduced U.S. total carbon emissions by a total of about 4%. Growth in Nuclear and Hydropower have been due to increased capacity factors or utilization of existing Power Plants. Growth in Solar and Geothermal has been due to increased power generation capacity construction, and, biomass is some combination thereof.

In Conclusion – The U.S. was the World’s largest emitter of carbon emissions before 2007; the year U.S. emissions from fossil fuels peaked. In 2007 China’s rapidly growing (and lower energy efficient) economy led to their country’s carbon emissions exceeding the U.S. and becoming the largest & continuously growing source of the World’s total carbon emissions ever since. Two other major events occurred beginning about 2007: the Great Recession, and the rapid development of U.S. domestic Oil & Gas ‘hydraulic fracturing’ technologies. Oil and Gas market prices peaked during the recession, then fell to 10-year lows due to increased market supply. Unlike crude oil which is primarily influenced by World markets (and/or OPEC), domestic natural gas prices continued to decline following the recession and most the following recovery years. This factor led to natural gas increasingly replacing alternative Power Section fuel sources; coal & some petroleum. During this same period, renewables (primarily Wind Power) and consumption efficiencies technologies continued to grow & evolve, and reduce the need for some fossil fuels.

The obvious question is: “Will the U.S. continue to make similar progress in the near future?”. The answer to this question is of course fairly complex, with significant uncertainties. Even though the new Administration has stated they plan to restore the Coal Industry, their ability to accomplish this is somewhat limited. Since domestic U.S. natural gas production is projected to continue growing and maintain its lower costs relative to alternative coal fuels, it’s unlikely that ‘fuels switching’ will decline in the near future. Also, since a large number of States have adopted regulations  that mandate reducing their in-state power supplies’ carbon emissions, and even if the Federal Government temporarily cancels the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the likelihood of the Power Sector replacing recently retired Coal Power Plants in the foreseeable future is very small; i.e. too risky for most investors. And, as long as many States continue with their lower carbon power supplies mandates and the Federal Government continues to support Wind & Solar Power capacity growth and power generation subsidies, these renewable power sources should continue to grow significantly in the foreseeable future.

Assuming the Residential & Commercial efficiency improvements continue to expand, this should hopefully result in offsetting increased good & services consumption by the U.S.’s continually growing Population. Also, if the new Administration successfully grows the Economy at rates significantly > 2% (U.S. GDP average growth 2009-2016) and the Industrial Sector’s durable goods production increases (reduced imports/trade deficits), World carbon emissions should actually decline at greater rates than increased U.S. Industrial Sector carbon emissions.

Sustaining and possibly growing Nuclear and Hydropower will likely continue to be major challenges. If the current Administration truly supports growing the Nuclear Power Industry as stated during the recent campaign, then significantly expanding this zero-carbon technology will definitely help reduce future U.S. carbon emissions. Hydropower will likely still face major Environmentalist resistance, which has hindered this major-existing zero carbon power generation source for decades.

Possibly the largest future challenges to further and continuously reducing U.S. fossil fuels consumption and associated carbon emissions will be the Transportation Sector and offsetting the continuously growing Population’s use of all modes of transportation. Unless accelerating the expansion of alternative lower-zero carbon transportation fuels & technologies become a reality in the near future, the U.S. could likely continue experiencing increased Transportation Sector petroleum consumption and carbon emissions. Electric vehicles (EV) are probably the most feasible solution to reducing and eliminating the need for petroleum motor fuels. Besides massively expanding light duty EV fleets, States and the Federal Government need to consider other commercial vehicle alternatives such as electric powered railroads & mass transit, medium-heavier duty on-road EV’s, and other transportation modes that can feasibly and cost effectively be powered by lower carbon electric power sources in the future.

Your thoughts?

FF 80% of total US GHG’s

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 8, 2017

Agreed, basically we are going nowhere fast. There is a shift in focus seen in Minnesota. Like the US in general, we are looking at alternative alternatives. Energy foolishness can kill here.

New people have embraced biomass and biochar. A fine group of academics and industry is doing pilot scale development in our forest northeast (see “Natural Resource Research Inst.” UofM, Duluth).

Further, the “Agriculture Utilization Research Inst.” has a big innovation meeting in March to develop new crop production ideas. They are the ethanol gang looking for new ideas.

I actually was treated nicely by both groups and others. A big story about my long gone mentor Prof. Otto Schmitt recently appeared in the StarTribune so they can’t be too nasty to Biophysics anymore.

But I’ve had enough and have been playing Linux programmer while doing some forest management this winter. And your article missed automation in some detail. Industry has replaced gears and levers with computer electronics, and Linux is advancing profoundly. Windowing GUIs, internal controls, and most easy to understand; microsecond real time accuracy. Internet shopping and bar code readers mattered.

And hurray for President Trump we won’t have trainloads of volatile fuel going through our communities. And we can do sane energy trade with Canada again, actual friends.

Meanwhile, we are talking about new fiber glass roofing for cooling and piping the solar energy to better use than absorbent rooftops cooking a billion people in India. Maybe “solar biofuel.” Who knows? Anything is better that going nowhere fast.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Feb 8, 2017

Rick, yes new and evolving technologies have been part of the solution and definitely will be required in the future to get our carbon emissions under control and reduce future fossil fuels consumption. We also need to make sure that all current and future bio energy solutions actually reduce ‘full lifecycle’ carbon emissions compared to the fossil fuels being replaced. This has been and will possibly be a growing gap in future imports assumed carbon credits (for example a recent ethanol advanced biofuels imports TEC post) in addition to other ‘carbon leakage’ related to each countries’ economic activities.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Feb 8, 2017

Rick, yes new and evolving technologies have been part of the solution and definitely will be required in the future to get our carbon emissions under control and reduce future fossil fuels consumption. We also need to make sure that all current and future bio energy solutions actually reduce ‘full lifecycle’ carbon emissions compared to the fossil fuels being replaced. This has been and will possibly be a growing gap in future imports assumed carbon credits (for example a recent ethanol advanced biofuels imports TEC post) in addition to other ‘carbon leakage’ related to each countries’ economic activities.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 8, 2017


Q: What’s Rick Perry’s position on alternative alternatives, on biomass and biochar, new fiberglass roofing, or piped solar energy?

A: He doesn’t have one, because he knows nothing about them. Though by training he would make a qualified SAH (Secretary of Animal Husbandry), his appointment by the man for whom you shout “hurray” is just another example of the execrable performance of our climate-denying Idiot In Chief.

Secretary of State Tillerson will no doubt have plenty of ideas on how to replace fossil fuels. And if not, maybe going to hell is better than going nowhere fast. Who knows?

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 8, 2017

Bob, you forgot to mention “solar biofuels” and Linux industrial automation referenced in my comment. And I suspect quite a few conservatives appreciate the opportunities since I’m suddenly getting treated so nicely after their landslide victories, even in the Minnesota legislature.

John Miller's picture
Thank John for the Post!
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