As I write this there are dozens, if not hundreds, of carbon emissions reduction efforts underway, or being suggested. Some can only be described as bogus, while others appear to have a positive impact, but in the big picture do not appear to make the difference that we really need.
The present global warming data has made it clear that we really need to speed things up, but we are not meeting the US and world goals, which, in simplest terms, comes down to zero carbon emissions in 2050.
In discussions on the subject, I keep hearing unfocused objections such as: “Why should I buy an EV since electricity also generates carbon emissions?” That is unproductive shortsighted thinking and can be easily addressed from a “goals”, rather than a “moment in time” point of view.
If anybody wants to help save the environment today, the best thing they can do is to not buy anything new that burns carbon fuels. Anything that burns carbon fuels today will continue to do so for the life of the product and therefore will not help reduce carbon emissions. However, anything that uses electricity may generate carbon today, but will not emit carbon once electricity generation is zero carbon. As such, your EV, or home heat pump, may not be totally zero carbon today, but over the life of the product it will continually emit less carbon as long as we reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation.
And that is sort of where the good news comes in.
While we are struggling in reducing carbon emissions in industry, transportation and housing, one thing we are starting to achieve is reductions in carbon emissions in electricity generation.
We even achieve this with increasing electricity production when more EV’s and heat pumps come on line, and while we need to increase distribution capacity, there is no technical or even economic limit in doing so.
In May 2023 the Congressional Research Service released their report: “Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S. Electricity Sector: Background, Policies, and Projections”.
This graph shows what has been taking place since 1990:
There is a lot to unpack here, but it is useful to focus on 2005. This shows that electric generation was the largest carbon emitter in the US at that time. Since that time all sectors have pretty much stayed steady with regard to carbon emissions except electric power which dropped by 36% in 2021 and the report itself shows the trend continues.
What this graph does not show is that during that period electric generation stayed relatively steady.
This is sort of a good news/bad news issue, since the relatively small change is related to modest increases in overall equipment efficiencies (think LED) offset by increased use of electrical equipment like EV’s and heat pumps, and population growth. From this it can be concluded that we are not converting enough stuff to be powered by electric.
Really what we want to see is increases in electricity generation with ever reducing carbon emissions, and simultaneous reductions in carbon emissions in the other sectors due to a switch from carbon fuels to sustainable electricity.
The actual approach to achieve that is quite simple: As individuals we need to stop buying carbon fuel equipment (Gas stoves, gas water heaters, gas home heaters, internal combustion cars and other internal combustions toys), while at the utility/government level we need to add sustainable electricity as fast as possible.
Those two trends, together, will provide the best possible outcome.
Interestingly it does not get involved in the solar versus wind versus waves versus nuclear debate, it simply focuses on reducing carbon emission in electric generation as quickly as possible.
In that regard, the continued trend of carbon emission reductions in the electricity generation sector is nice, but faster is better, and this is where Reggie comes in.
Reggie is how people pronounce RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Reggie is a Cap and Trade program that compels electrical utilities to reduce their greenhouse emissions. While Cap and Trade is not really a tax, it is often called a tax by opponents. In large portions of the country, and US politics in general, carbon taxes are a no-no, but in 2007 seven US Northeastern states joined together to initiate their own Cap and Trade carbon emission reduction scheme. And since only results count, I don’t care if it is called a tax or not. Today Reggie applies in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Virginia. Due to the success of the program, Pennsylvania is in the process of joining and North Carolina is also considering joining.
The word “taxes” tends to cause aversion, and additional taxes are often shouted down, but proper taxes actually can be very effective, and real data becomes available when a tax program can be compared to those who do not use that tax mechanism.
And the data is sweet. While the United States as a whole has reduced electricity generation carbon emissions by 36% since 2005, the Reggie states have reduced carbon emissions by over 50% since the program began in 2007. (Keep in mind that the 36% national reduction includes the Reggie states’ 50% reduction, and therefore the difference between Reggie and non-Reggie states is actually larger)
The question is: What was the cost for that improvement? Well, it is actually a win/win. Studies of the program have shown that the program adds to net economic growth and job creation in these states. While the growth and job creation numbers are significant, they are not huge, but the revenue and utility incentives from the program have paid for homeowner electric efficiency improvements, reducing the electric bills for participating homeowners.
Moreover, one thing that we tend to forget is that sustainable energy is clean energy, improving air quality and public health. The estimated savings in reduced healthcare costs is actually much larger than the direct economic impact of Reggie.
In a 2019 the Congressional Research Service studied Reggie and concluded that the program should be considered for national adoption.
This is all good government policy, but government alone rarely can solve the entire problem, the public needs to buy in too, and in this case solving the problem at the individual level is easy:
No matter where you live, stop buying internal combustion equipment. Buy electric and you will be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.
A Bit More Data
In further reviewing this issue I came across this data. Keep in mind, this is per capita emissions by state and is not just electrical generation. It includes everything, but the Reggie states are leading the pack.
|Table 4. Per capita energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by state (1970–2021)|
|metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide per person|
|District of Columbia||18.0||6.9||3.8||-79.12%||-14.3|
|Average all states||20.7||20.3||14.8||-28.67%||-5.9|
|Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, State Energy Data System and EIA calculations made for this analysis.|