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Renewables biggest factor in slashing US emissions

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

According to new Energydesk analysis, wind power and not shale gas was the biggest sungle cause of the fall in US carbon emissions from coal use.

The findings, which are based on figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), contradict the established narrative that proposed shale gas as the greatest single factor in bringing down emissions.

The US shale industry has been widely credited for reducing the country’s reliance on coal and slashing carbon pollution from the power sector. However, research by Greenpeace energy and climate analyst Lauri Myllyvirta suggests that shale gas played a much smaller role than previously thought.

Between 2007 and 2013, the US saw the largest fall in coal use ever experienced by any country, with renewables, energy efficiency and shale gas together picking up the slack. Switching away from coal led to lower emissions from the power sector, which has largely been attributed to fracking.

But the Energydesk analysis shows that instead most of the power vacuum left by coal (56%) was filled with a big surge in renewables and efficiency over the same period, with the rest being covered by gas fired generation.

Furthermore, of the 16% fall in US carbon emissions since 2007, only one third (30%) came from switching from coal to gas, for the simple reason that natural gas still emits CO2.

In contrast, 40% came from the switch from coal to renewables and the remaining 30% from improved efficiency. Increased generation from wind power plants alone was responsible for 32% of the drop, a slightly larger contribution than made by gas.

The Greenpeace analysis only looks at emissions from burning the fuel to generate electricity and doesn’t account for the methane leakage from shale gas, which would further diminish shale gas contribution to emissions reduction, according to Energydesk.

A recent analysis by Bernstein research suggests that US coal use will fall a further 25% by 2020, again partially driven by renewables growth.

The steady decrease of US emissions has however been reversed over the last 18 months following a price driven increase in coal burn, and also a resurgence in crude oil production (up 31% in the last two years). But with a significant number of coal plants due to retire in 2015, this return to rising emissions may be short lived.

Adapted from a press release by Emma McAleavey.

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