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National Environmental Trust

Three simple measures would reduce U.S. greenhouse emissions

NET report ranks utilities by greenhouse gas emissions, shows we can cut to 1990 levels through energy efficiency and no lifestyle changes

December, 1997 — Contrary to the claims of the fossil fuel industry, NET's study of electric power plants finds the U.S. could make significant reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions in a very simple way through energy efficiency.

Electric utilities could bring U.S. carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels — one key target — if all their power plants just burned as efficiently as the best ones do now, according to "Powering the Future: Clean Energy for a Clean Environment."

Add the energy savings from better maintenance of existing cars and light trucks, and the savings from more efficient appliances that Congress has sought for a decade, and the U.S. could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to 9 percent below 1990 levels. (Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the principal human cause of the greenhouse effect, as the gas builds up in the atmosphere and traps the sun's heat.)

"Scientists are telling us that global warming will bring severe weather, coastal flooding, crop failures, and extinctions of familiar plants and animals," said Philip E. Clapp, President of National Environmental Trusts. "This report shows that targets for reducing these problems are achievable, and that technology that exists today could get us there."

With the Kyoto agreement, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore will have to devise strategies to bring U.S. greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. "Powering the Future" identifies a common-sense solution that would allow the Administration to keep promises made by Clinton, Gore, and President Bush before them: improving the energy efficiency of our power plants. It ranks coal- and gas-fired electric plants — the largest single source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — by how much carbon dioxide they contribute to global warming. It finds they vary widely, and suggests that even without changing the fuel they burn or reducing their power output, they could do far better. For example:

  • The Harbor Generating Station of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works reports emitting just 655 pounds of carbon dioxide for each megawatt hour of electricity it generates by burning natural gas. That compares with a national average of 1,314 pounds per megawatt hour for all natural gas-fired plants. But such plants vary from that average by up to 40 percent.

  • On the other hand, the Rock River plant operated by Wisconsin Power and Light Co. emits 3.056 pounds of carbon dioxide for each megawatt hour of electricity it generates by burning mostly coal, with some oil and natural gas. That compares with a national average of 2.296 pounds per megawatt hour for coal-fired plants. But such plants vary from that average by up to 33 percent, regardless of power generating capacity or the age of equipment. That shows how much opportunity for improvement there is.

"These figures should help electric utilities focus on reducing their own impact on global warming," Clapp said. "In fact, we think every electric customer ought to have this kind of plant-by-plant information, so we can shop for the lowest-impact source of power for our own homes and businesses once we get that choice."

Nationally, 55% of America's electric power is generated by burning coal, which releases more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than any other fuel. Utilities report their fuel use, carbon dioxide emissions, and power generation to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. EIC based "Powering the Future" on the 1995 data.

Among the report's other major findings:

  • By conservative estimate, total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced 7 percent (bringing them 3 percent below 1990 levels) if our existing electric power plants all burned fossil fuels as efficiently as the most efficient do now. This assumes just a 20 percent improvement, rather than the larger range of 33 to 40 percent which the statistics suggest is possible.

  • The average residential electric customer's contribution to the greenhouse effect would be reduced in that case from 11.4 tons of carbon dioxide a year to 9.1 tons a year— with no decrease in the consumer's use of electricity. The average commercial electric customer's share could be reduced from 166.2 tons a year to 133 tons a year — again with no decrease in electric use.

  • If better energy efficiency standards for household and commercial appliances— already on the books since Congress passed them in 1992 and 1987— were finally issued by the Department of Energy, carbon dioxide emissions would fall another 4 percent. This would also save consumers millions of dollars on their electric bills, since use of electricity would actually fall in this case.

  • A modest gain in the gas mileage of existing cars and trucks could reduce U.S.. carbon dioxide emissions an additional 4 percent, according to a recent Department of Energy report. This would take an improvement of three miles a gallon, readily achievable through simple maintenance steps such as tuneups and proper tire inflation

  • These efficiency gains from power plants, appliances, and automobiles alone could bring U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 9 percent below 1990 levels.

"Simply by taking these common-sense steps, the United States could lead the world in reducing human-caused climate change," said Clapp. "Meanwhile, we could proceed to research and market even better ways of generating energy that produce no greenhouse gases at all. That includes the goal of 'a million solar rooftops' that President Clinton announced this summer, and more wind-powered electric generation, which is now cost-competitive with natural gas."

For further comment, please contact Tom Natan, Research Director of the National Environmental Trust at 202-887-8800. NET is a national non-profit environmental group founded in 1994 to educate the public about environmental issues before Congress.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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