The U.S. has a lot of work to do to draw down carbon emissions. But a new report shows that when it comes to the energy grid, things are actually in better shape than researchers thought it’d be by this point.
The analysis from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory takes a look back at federal projections from the Energy Information Administration from 2005. The agency forecast that carbon pollution tied to electricity generation would increase 600 million metric tons between 2005 and 2020, a 25% increase from 2,400 million tons.
That’s not what happened, though. Instead, carbon emissions from the grid actually fell to 1,450 million metric tons in 2020. That’s a 40% reduction compared to 2005 and 52% below where the EIA thought grid-related emissions would be by now.
“We are now ‘halfway to zero,’” Berkeley Lab scientist Ryan Wiser, lead author of the study, said in a statement in reference to the report name and glass half full mentality about emissions.
This is good for the climate, though emissions need to fall to zero in order to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But this reduction in carbon over the past 15 years also came with a host of other benefits, especially when compared the EIA outlook. Total energy bills for consumers were 18% lower in 2020 than the EIA projected in 2005, equalling $86 billion in savings for Americans. Reduced fossil fuel power generation also dramatically lowered sulfur and nitrogen emissions, which led to less illness. While the EIA forecast called for 38,000 premature deaths from respiratory disease in 2020, the actual number ended up being 3,100.
Of course, 2020 wasn’t an ordinary year for the power sector. Due to a dramatic drop in demand for fuel amid covid-19 lockdowns, U.S. electricity use in 2020 was a full 4% lower than in 2019. As a result, the nation saw much less carbon pollution from the grid than it would have expected to. The EIA estimated it fell by a historic 11% from the previous year.
But the report’s authors show that even though 2020 was an outlier, it wasn’t a complete aberration; the grid’s carbon emissions had been on a steady decline even before the pandemic began. U.S. energy emissions in 2019 were 46% lower 2005 government projections showed they would be and 33% lower than actual emissions were in 2005.
The authors also analyzed the ways the U.S. electric grid has changed in the past 15 years to determine what the biggest drivers of this reduction have been. They found that one reason was the overall amount of energy used. In 2005, EIA analysts expected that there would be a 24% uptick in use by 2020, but in fact, total demand for electricity was almost exactly the same in 2020 as it was in 2005 (and that’s despite an increase in both population and GDP). And again, that wasn’t just because of the pandemic—if you use pre-pandemic figures from 2019, Americans still used 21% less electricity than the agency predicted.
That reduction, the authors say, reflects that equipment and appliances became more efficient due to technological innovation and stricter efficiency standards. Everything from lighting to construction equipment began running on less power to do the same tasks.
The researchers also found that renewable power far outperformed the EIA’s expectations. Wind and solar generated 13 times more energy in 2020 than the agency projected in 2005. That was a result of technological innovation driven by state and federal policies, which also made clean energy sources far more affordable over that 15-year period. This also means future progress could move quicker still and save even more money.
“Given advancements in wind, solar, and battery technologies, decarbonizing the power sector now appears to be more cost-effective than expected just a few years ago,” the report says.
The report also found that the shuttering of coal plants delivered a reduction in carbon emissions, since coal is among the dirtiest fuels. But thanks to the fracking boom and low gas prices, the U.S. replaced most of that coal with natural gas, which emits less carbon per unit of energy than coal but is still by no means clean.
Getting off natural gas will be one of the key challenges when it comes to continuing to decarbonize our energy grid. In 2019, the fuel was the top contributor to the growth in the nation’s carbon emissions, and it’s continued to be the fastest-growing energy source. But to kick fossil fuels completely, the U.S. have to stop that growth and instead quickly ramp up deployment of renewable power sources.
The authors say that a large portion of the clean energy capacity needed to reach a carbon-free power sector is already in the pipeline. Right now, developers have requested permission to bring about 660 more gigawatts of wind and solar online, which is more than half of what the authors think will be required to reach the goal of complete decarbonization. Even better, “approximately 570 gigawatts of this proposed capacity has requested to interconnect and come online before the end of 2025,” the report says.
But none of that means we should just sit back and watch decarbonization happen. The science has made it clear that we need to transition as fast as possible. Left up to its own devices, the fossil fuel industry won’t go away quietly or justly—it will continue to attempt to greenwash its dirty products while also laying off workers and creating pollution. We can deal with all of that with policy that prioritizes rapid fossil fuel phase-out, workers’ rights, and environmental safety.