In this guide, we look at potential solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy and electricity production.
Summary – Solutions For Reducing Power & Electricity Production Sector Emissions
Emissions from electricity generation come mainly from burning of fossil fuels like coal, but also natural gas (read more about the energy sources that emit the most GHGs in energy generation in this guide)
In terms of countries, China is the top emitting country, and China actually emits almost double the US’s total annually (the US is currently in second place for total annual emissions)
So, we can see some of the main trends, sources and causes of emissions in electricity and power generation above
In lieu of this, some key solutions to reduce emissions in this sector might be …
Reducing total energy consumption or decreasing energy consumption rates per capita may be the best solution overall to reduce emissions rates, as well as increases in energy efficiency (for example – decreasing emissions per kWh of electricity produced). An increase in efficiency though might not decrease total emissions if total energy use continues to rise
Switching to cleaner sources of energy than fossil fuels like some renewables could be another major solution
Some sources indicate expansion of renewable energy and further increases in energy efficiency alone could help get the world 90 per cent of the way to healthy CO2 reduction targets from the energy sector
For countries primarily using coal, or still using coal, they may consider the feasibility of a short term transition from coal to natural gas, which is cleaner and emits less GHGs during combustion. But, China for example, faces many obstacles and challenges in transitioning to cleaner energy than coal. So, short term energy transitions are easier said than done. There’s usually challenges with building or modifying infrastructure to suit new energy source. There can also be risks in some instance, particularly financial/investment risks, and stability of public supply energy risks
In the medium to long term, consider how electricity generation can transition to lower and zero carbon energy sources (such as renewables, and even nuclear)
Increase energy efficiency and decrease energy loss at all stages of the energy production process – at power plants (with more efficient plants and power sites), during transmission (carrying energy in the public supply network), and during consumption (in the building, factory or appliance it’s used in for example). There’s also the consideration of minimizing emissions at the mining stage when talking about natural gas and oil, and potential methane leaks
Residential and commercial buildings consume the most electricity and natural gas – so focus can be placed here for increases in efficiency, and also retrofitting
New buildings should be built with energy efficiency in mind
Tools like carbon pricing can be used – but, caution should be exercised in having a free market
Consider how emission standards for new power plants and existing power plants can have a positive impact
Consider how current subsidies for fossil fuels compared to alternative energy sources are influencing the current energy market
Consider how district heating can create better efficiencies in the direct production of heat (but, note that non residential and residential buildings may need different heating systems)
Overall, some experts say we might see the best returns for our emission reduction efforts in the power generation sector (specifically the stationary energy sector), compared to the transport or agricultural sectors. So, it’s an important sector to focus on
We should also consider that along with water demand, energy demand is expected to increase in the future as the world population increases, especially in developing countries. So, increases in energy efficiency will be critical
*Note – every country has a different greenhouse gas emission profile (because their industries are all different sizes, and they might have different production processes to each other). The above are general solutions, but, a greenhouse gas solution plan should be put together for each individual country, state/province, or city. China and the US are of particular significance as they are currently the two biggest annual emitters of GHGs.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions By Industry, & In The Power & Electricity Production Sector
As one excerpt …
In 2010, the total global greenhouse gas emissions by sector globally, measured in gigagrams of carbon-dioxide equivalents (CO₂e), were:
- Total – 50.58 million
- Energy – 23.24 million
- Land Use Sources – 5.54 million
- Transport – 5.54 million
- Agriculture – 5.08 million
- Commercial & Residential – 3.74 million
- Industry – 3.47 million
- Waste – 1.45 million
- Forestry – 1.18 million
- International Bunkers – 1.08 million
- Other Sources – 267,609.41 thousand
But, as mentioned, each country has a different emissions share by sector, so look at individual country greenhouse gas numbers too (and not just the numbers of one country, or global numbers). Also, note that different sectors emit different types of GHGs in different quantities (e.g. methane from agriculture needs to be considered).
Potential Options/Solutions For Reducing Greenhouse Gas & CO2 Emissions From Energy & Electricity Production
EPA.gov outlines some of the following solutions (paraphrased):
- Increased Efficiency of Power Plants and Fuel Switching – Increasing efficiency of existing power plants by using advanced technologies or substituting fuels that combust more efficiently. [e.g. conversions to advanced coal turbines that use pulverized coal, conversions to natural gas-powered turbine,s conversions to combined-cycle turbines]
- Renewable Energy – Using renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuel to generate electricity. [e.g. increasing the share of total electricity generated from renewable and possibly certain biofuels]
- Increased Energy Efficiency (end-use) – Reducing energy demand by increasing efficiency and conservation in homes, businesses, and industry [e.g. focus on power savings and efficiency with all systems, designs and equipment that use power – also consider energy efficiency certification star ratings and programs]
- Nuclear Energy – Generating electricity from nuclear processes rather than the combustion of fossil fuels [e.g. transitioning from coal plants to nuclear plants as coal plants are retired]
- Carbon Capture Sequestration and Storage (CCS) – capturing CO2 and transferring the CO2 to a long-term storage area, such as an underground geologic formation [although we’ve written elsewhere on the site that CCS can be expensive and not always reliable in some aspects]
- Regulations on new and existing power plants might be beneficial in reducing GHG emissions
- Other GHG reduction opportunities in the power sector might be …
- Shift from coal to natural gas,
- Improve plant efficiency
- Use biomass as fuel
- Add renewable energy sources
- Increase transmission and distribution efficiency
- Reduce industrial demand (for example through combined heat and power)
- Reduce commercial demand (for example, through improved lighting)
- Reduce residential demand (for example, through more efficient appliances)
- Non-fossil fuel sources including nuclear … and renewable sources … which include hydroelectricity, biomass, wind, and solar … usually release fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel combustion, if any emissions at all.
- [a multi factor approach to decreasing emissions from the energy sector might include …]
- Moving away from [a] dependency on coal power by investing in renewable energy and natural gas fired electricity generation and by assisting in developing alternative energy sources through regulation, financial incentives, education, promotion and collaboration with municipalities.
In Canada, to limit/reduce carbon emissions, some of the things they have done or are doing are:
- Introduce the Pan-Canadian Framework
- Phased out coal – To support this transition and to reduce GHG emissions, Canada has committed to phasing out its coal-fired electricity power plants by 2030. Canada has reduced its coal consumption by 24% since 1990 and by 41% since 2000.
- Introduced carbon pricing – Canada has committed to reduce GHGs by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. In 2016, the federal government announced a national climate change policy, which included a Canada-wide carbon pricing system. With existing and planned provincial action, broad-based carbon pricing will apply in provinces with nearly 85 percent of Canada’s economy and population by 2017, covering a large part of Canada’s emissions.
To reduce emissions related to power generation, countries and states might:
- Finalize carbon dioxide (CO₂) emission standards for new power plants and adopt standards for existing power plants
- Build off of existing initiatives like renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency standards, and other policies as well as use tools like greater efficiency at coal plants, increased use of combined heat and power, and fuller utilization of unused capacity at natural gas plants.
Economics Of Reducing Emissions In Electricity Generation
You can read more about economic estimates at http://www.climateaction.org/news/renewables_can_reduce_co2_emission_by_70_by_2050
Some points worth noting are:
- … the economic case for the energy transition has never been stronger.
- Today around the world, new renewable power plants are being built that will generate electricity for less cost than fossil-fuel power plants. And through 2050, the decarbonisation can fuel sustainable economic growth and create more new jobs in renewables
- The energy investment needed for decarbonising the energy sector is substantial – an additional USD 29 trillion until 2050; however, this only amounts to a small share (0.4 per cent) of global gross domestic product (GDP)
- … delays will raise the costs of decarbonisation
- … according to [a] macroeconomic analysis …. such investment creates a stimulus that coupled with pro-growth policies will increase global GDP by 0.8 per cent in 2050, generate new jobs in the renewable energy sector – offsetting the jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry – and improve human welfare through additional environmental and health benefits due to cleaner air
- … [there needs to be] policy efforts to create an enabling framework and re-design of current energy markets … [and there needs to be] stronger price signals and carbon pricing to help provide a level playing field when complemented by other measures, emphasising the importance of considering the needs of those without energy access
Some other GHG emission mitigation cost estimates can be found at https://ourworldindata.org/how-much-will-it-cost-to-mitigate-climate-change. They also mention mitigation solutions and options
Emissions Breakdown, & Emission Trends In The Power/Electricity Sector
It’s important to know information such as the prevalent greenhouse gas, exactly where emissions are coming from (the source), and trends over time in a sector.
In the US:
- The Electricity sector involves the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) makes up the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions from the sector, but smaller amounts of methane (CH4)and nitrous oxide (N2O) are also emitted. These gases are released during the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, to produce electricity.
- Coal combustion is more carbon intensive than burning natural gas or petroleum for electricity. Although coal accounted for about 67 percent of CO2 emissions from the sector, it represented only about 32 percent of the electricity generated in the United States in 2016. Another 33 percent of electricity generated in 2016 was generated using natural gas, an increase relative to 2015. Petroleum accounted for less than 1 percent of electricity generation in 2016. The remaining generation in 2016 came from non-fossil fuel sources including nuclear (about 21 percent) and renewable sources (about 14 percent), which include hydroelectricity, biomass, wind, and solar.
Read more at https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#electricity
Also in the US:
- Electric power generation is responsible for 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
- These emissions come from the combustion of coal or natural gas to make electricity.
- Greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector have fallen dramatically since their peak in 2005, but nonetheless represent a major source in the economy.
- Despite growing renewable generation, fossil fuels still account for about two-thirds of U.S. electricity.
- You can see a graph of the different electricity generation sources by year in the US up to 2017 at https://www.c2es.org/content/regulating-power-sector-carbon-emissions/
- Despite accounting for less than 9% of total electricity generation, coal was responsible for 75% of electricity related GHG emissions in 2016.
- Total electricity emissions decreased by 39% from 2000 to 2016 due to increased generation from non-emitting sources
- Renewable electricity generation has increased 17% between 2010 and 2016, with solar and wind having largest growth.
- In 2016, almost 81% of electricity in Canada came from non-GHG emitting sources.
- Hydro made up 59%, nuclear 15%, and other renewables the remaining 7%.
- Renewable energy sources make up 2/3’s of Canada’s electricity mix.
- Renewable electricity generation has increased 17% between 2010 and 2016, with solar and wind having largest growth.
Read more at https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/facts/energy-ghgs/20063
Potential Targets For Reducing Emissions From The Electricity Generation Sector
Per Climateaction.org (paraphrased):
- Use of renewable energy and energy efficiency … can achieve [significant] emissions reductions
- Emissions will need to decline continuously to 9.5 Gt by 2050, in order to curb global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures
- … 90 per cent of this energy CO2 reduction can be achieved through the expansion of renewable energy and improving energy efficiency.
- At present, renewables account for 24 per cent of global power production and 16 per cent of primary energy supply.
- To achieve this scale of decarbonisation, the report affirms that renewable energy sources should represent 80 per cent of global power generation and 65 per cent of total primary energy supply.
- [Alot has been invested in] petroleum refineries, petrol stations, natural gas fields and pipelines, coal mines, and electric grids that power modern societies.
- [there will need to be] major changes in this supply infrastructure and the built environment that it feeds.
- Today, power plants produce about 30 percent of all carbon emissions.
- To meet the growing need for electricity in developing countries while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of carbon released per unit of electricity production must fall 75 percent by 2050.
- This will require phasing out older, inefficient coal plants, and replacing them with a mixture of combined – cycle natural gas, nuclear, wind, geothermal, biomass, and solar power, steps that would lead to dramatic air quality improvements in many mega cities of the developing world.
- Carbon capture and storage technology – if it proves cost effective and can be developed in a reasonable time frame – would enable the continued use of coal
- Residential and commercial buildings consume the bulk of the world’s electricity and much of its natural gas.
- Improving the design of new buildings and retrofitting old ones can dramatically improve their energy performance.
- Many existing buildings can be made up to 90 percent more efficient, and new buildings are actually capable of producing more energy than they consume.
Some sources say Australia can achieve zero net emissions by 2050 and live within its recommended carbon budget, using technologies that exist today, while still growing the economy … with 4 pillars of action [that includes addressing energy and electricity production]:
- Ambitious energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport
- Low carbon electricity, either through 100% renewables or a mix of renewables and other technologies
- Electrification where possible of transport and energy-using equipment in buildings and industry where possible, and elsewhere switching to low carbon fuels
- Reducing non-energy emissions through improvements in industrial processes and agricultural practices, and offsetting residual emissions through carbon forestry.