Carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity generation fell last year to their lowest level since 1987, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported today, and the strongest driver is neither the shift from coal to natural gas nor the growth of renewables.
More than half of the 28 percent drop in emissions has occurred because of a single factor: a decline in industrial demand for electricity, the EIA reported.
“U.S. electricity demand has decreased in 6 of the past 10 years, as industrial demand has declined and residential and commercial demand has remained relatively flat,” writes Perry Lindstrom, a senior energy and environmental analyst.
Industrial demand for electricity grew by 1.9 percent per year from 1996 to 2005, but has declined since 2005 by -0.1 percent per year. If that shift had not taken place, Lindstrom concludes, U.S. power sector emissions would have been 654 million metric tons higher last year.
That’s slightly larger than the decline in emissions from the power sector’s shift to using cleaner fuels—natural gas and renewables. Cleaner fuels are responsible for saving 645 MMmt of emissions.
Today’s EIA report does not investigate the reason for the decline in industrial demand, but EIA’s past analyses of the industrial sector offer a clue. In its 2017 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey, EIA pegged the decline in industrial electricity consumption to a national shift away from energy-intensive industries.
“Although many manufacturing establishments are taking steps to reduce their energy consumption, the energy intensity decrease for total manufacturing is mostly the result of a shift of manufacturing output from energy-intensive industries, such as the manufacture of metals, chemicals, paper, and petroleum and coal products, to less energy-intensive industries,” analyst Bob Adler writes in that report. For example:
“One of the fastest growing industries between 2010 and 2014 was transportation equipment manufacturing, an industry with relatively low energy intensity.”
In today’s report, EIA determined that CO2 emissions from the electric power sector totaled 1,744 million metric tons in 2017, the lowest level since 1987.