04/23/2009 10:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

US Electricity Emissions in Freefall

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) US electric power estimates for January and February just came out. And the numbers are dramatic. Net generation in January was down ~3.3% from January 2008, largely on lower demand from industrial users. February showed an even greater ~6.9% nosedive in net generation of electricity on a warm February and further industrial slowdown. Combining the first two months, year-to-date total electricity generation is down ~4.5% so far in 2009.


Composition Changes: Lower Carbon Intensity

On top of the lower overall consumption of electricity is a shift toward lower carbon intensity of the electricity generated. This shift was strongest in February when dirtier coal consumption for electricity fell 13.4% while demand for cleaner natural gas increased 2.4% and wind climbed significantly as well. The low price of natural gas is driving the shift from coal, as I wrote in February may happen. This could lead to coal's share of electricity falling below 48% in 2009, a continuation of coal's share decline of the last ten years described a couple weeks back.

Carbon Emissions Poised to Fall 3+%

When you add up fossil fuel consumption in early 2009, you get a picture of emissions in freefall. Rather than the 2.5% emissions drop I described a few days ago from the April EIA Short Term Energy Outlook, emissions from energy use are currently falling at a 5% rate. Coal use is falling ~8%, natural gas for electricity is down ~4%, and oil demand is more than 4% below 2008 levels.

Since it is possible that weather (a hot summer and cold early winter) and a late 2009 economic recovery may bring emissions levels closer to those in 2008, for now I will say that emissions are poised to fall more than 3% this year. But keep the higher 4-5% range in mind as possible - which would bring US emissions to just ~6.5% above 1990 levels.

Bottom Line: US carbon dioxide emissions are poised to fall dramatically in 2009. The more we deploy efficiency and renewables, the faster we can send emissions down and keep them down as our economic recovery revs up in late 2009/2010. I'll keep you updated at as this develops during the months ahead.