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Shift From Coal to Gas, Renewables 'Tectonic,’ NRDC Says

While tipping its hat to natural gas, the third annual energy report released Thursday by the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said renewable energy use is at a historic high and poised for even greater advances.

Last year, cumulative emissions in the United States were below 1996 levels, according to the NRDC's latest nationwide energy report, "A Tectonic Shift in America's Energy Landscape." U.S. carbon pollution dropped by 10% over the past decade, the report concluded. "Meanwhile, coal and electricity consumption are down nationwide, while oil use today is lower than in the early 1970s," an NRDC spokesperson said.

The report cited two important U.S. milestones -- the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan to limit GHG emissions in power generation, and California's climate change law (SB 350) signed into law last Wednesday (see Daily GPI, Oct. 8).

While natural gas hit a 40-year high in 2012, exceeding 30% of the electric generation load, that percentage dropped below 28% last year, according to NRDC. However, it predicted the percentage likely would surpass 30% again this year. "In April, U.S. power plants for the first time generated more electricity from natural gas than coal,” according to the report.

Last year, less coal was burned in the United States than in 1990, and coal was down more than 21% from its peak-year use in 2005, primarily due to increasing coal-fired plant retirements, the report said. For the first time in two decades, U.S. coal production dropped below 1 billion short tons last year, further reflecting the power sector's move away from coal.

Meanwhile, renewables soared, according to the NRDC report. Wind power has seen a 33-fold increase from 2000 to 2014, and solar power last year doubled its output over the previous year for the fourth consecutive year. Last year for the first time, solar power exceeded production from geothermal resources.

"The amount of renewable energy from wind turbines, solar panels and other technologies now equals roughly 10% of the nation's energy use," said Sierra Martinez, a co-author of the report and NRDC's California Energy Project legal director. Because of various efficiency measures, for the first time electricity growth from 2000 through 2014 was slower than U.S. population growth, according to the report.

The report bodes well for global climate change negotiations set for December in Paris, said Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the NRDC Energy Program.

While noting that the United States can and should do more to stabilize the global climate change situation, Cavanagh said "the economic and environmental performance of America's energy systems has never been better, and the single most important contributor is energy efficiency, the largest and least expensive way to meet the nation's energy needs."

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