Fuel switching from coal to natural gas, which was prompted by an almost 50% decline in gas prices, helped drive down the electric power sector’s carbon intensity nearly 4.3% in 2009, according to an Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis of the level and drivers of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2009.

Also contributing to the sector’s carbon intensity decline was the efficiency of newer gas generators, an increase in renewable generation and an increase in nuclear generation’s share of total generation. Electric power sector generation from natural gas was 841 billion kWh last year, compared with 518 billion kWh in 2000.

“The carbon content of natural gas is about 45% lower than the carbon content of coal, and modern natural gas generation plants that can compete to supply base load electricity often use significantly less energy input to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity than a typical coal-fired generation plant,” according to the EIA analysis.

Emissions from coal dropped 12%, petroleum emissions were down 5.3% and natural gas emissions were down 1.6% last year, EIA said.

The largest absolute and percentage decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States since the EIA began documenting annual energy data more than 60 years ago could be erased as the economy regains its footing, EIA said Wednesday.

“If energy-intensive industries lead the economic recovery, emissions would increase faster than if service industries or light manufacturing play the leading role,” EIA said. “If coal, which was more heavily impacted by the recent economic downturn than other energy sources, rebounds disproportionately the carbon intensity of the energy supply could rise above the 2009 level. However, longer-term trends continue to suggest decline in both the amount of energy used per unit of economic output and the carbon intensity of our energy supply, which both work to restrain emissions.”

While emissions in the United States have declined in three out of the last four years, “2009 was exceptional,” reflecting “a combination of factors, including some particular to the economic downturn, other special circumstances during the year, and other factors that may reflect persistent trends in our economy and our energy use,” EIA said. CO2 emissions, which had grown at an average annual rate of 1.4% during the 1990s and declined an average of 0.9% during the following decade, tumbled 7% (405 million metric tons) in 2009.

Contributing to the emissions decline in 2009 were reductions in per capita gross domestic product (down 3.3%), energy intensity of the economy (down more than 2%) and carbon intensity of the energy supply (down more than 2%), EIA said.

EIA last year reported a 2.2% emissions decrease in 2008 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 4, 2009). At the same time, global concentrations of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide reached the highest levels recorded since pre-industrial times, according to the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations (see Power Market Today, Nov. 25, 2009).

Total energy consumption fell 4.8%, led by a 9.9% decline in the industrial sector. The decline reflected the combined effect of the economic downturn, which disproportionately impacted energy-intensive industries, and the continuation of a long-term trend of growth in the service sector relative to the industrial sector, according to EIA.

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