New data from the Department of Energy show that coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation has been falling consistently from 50% as recently as 2008 to a new record low of 34.5% in the second quarter of 2012 (see top chart). At the same time, natural gas has been gradually displacing coal for electricity generation and its share has risen to a new high of 32.1% in the second quarter. So in just the last four years, coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation has gone from 50% to just over one-third this year, while natural gas’s share has gone from about one-fifth to almost one-third.
One benefit of the switch from coal to clean natural gas for electricity generation has been a significant reduction in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, which are on track to fall this year to the lowest level since 1991 (based on data from January – June), more than 20 years ago (see bottom chart above). For example, carbon dioxide emissions from coal during the first six months of 2012 totaled 765 million metric tons, which is 17% below the coal-related CO2 emissions in the same period last year. For the full year, it’s likely that carbon emissions from coal will fall to the lowest level since the 1980s.
Bottom Line: The oceans of natural gas in the U.S. that have recently become accessible with advanced drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have generated significant benefits for the U.S. economy: thousands of shovel-ready jobs in the energy industry (both direct and indirect throughout the natural gas supply chain), cheap natural gas that has saved residential and industrial consumers hundreds of billions of dollars over the last three years, and now the additional environmental bonus of helping bring C02 emissions down to a 20-year low.
As energy expert John Hanger commented last summer when only first quarter data on CO2 emissions were available:
The bottom line is that America’s carbon emissions may drop back close to 1990 levels this year. That result would have been thought impossible, even at the end of 2011.
But the shale gas revolution makes a reality many things recently thought impossible. It was thought impossible to slash carbon US carbon emissions back to 1990 levels by 2012. It was thought impossible to massively, quickly cut carbon emissions and, at the same time, have lower energy bills.
Shale gas production has slashed carbon emissions and saved consumers more than $100 billion per year. Truly astonishing!