Oct 2, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The state of zero-carbon power

Data: EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

A federal report on U.S. carbon emissions helps to show the fast rise of wind and solar in recent years and why the potential retirement of nuclear plants makes it harder to deeply decarbonize the overall mix.

Driving the news: As the chart above shows, renewables are a rapidly growing share of the total amount of zero-carbon electricity the country produces, but nuclear still has by far the largest amount.

  • As plants potentially retire, those growing renewables must compensate for nuclear losses in addition to replacing fossil generation.
  • EIA's long-term outlook sees nuclear capacity falling by almost 20% in the next few decades, but the level of future natural gas prices could raise or reduce that amount a lot.

The big picture: The CO2 report unpacks forces that led to a 2.9% drop last year, including coal's continued slide, and a dip in transportation emissions following growth from 2012-2018.

  • Natural gas, which emits far less CO2 when burned than coal, is responsible for more of the ongoing declines in power sector CO2 emissions than renewables, it shows.

What's next: EIA's latest short-term outlook sees a 10% drop in U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions this year because the pandemic curtailed so much activity, but a nearly 5% rise in 2021.

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