CMU Kicks Off New Quarterly Report To Track Carbon Emissions From Power Plants

Jun 22, 2017

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are hoping a new quarterly report will help policymakers and the public keep track of the carbon dioxide impact of the nation’s electricity industry.

Along with reporting the total amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by all electricity plants, the quarterly Power Sector Carbon Index will break down the data by the type of generating plant.

It also measures those emissions against the amount of power being generated to get a rating of pounds of carbon per megawatt hour.

“This allows us to have a transparent view into progress the power sector is making or not making,” co-lead researcher Costa Samaras said.

The first quarterly report was released this month. It finds the total carbon produced per unit of electricity generated in the U.S. was up nearly one percent from this time last year, but down about eleven percent from 2015.

“We need to make sure we continue to understand that deep decarbonization of the power sector is important and necessary," Samaras said. "And these types of open data efforts can help track it."

The reduction in carbon dioxide per megawatt hour was due in part to an increase in the percentage of power being generated by renewables and a slight improvement in the efficiency of coal and natural gas power plants.

“We want them to have access to all the information that we energy analysts have and be able to use that to make better decisions at their household, at their businesses and hopefully at the state an national level on how to decarbonize our electricity system,” Samaras said.

The report uses a benchmark of 2005. Samaras said, since then, carbon intensity, or amount produced per unit of electricity, is down by about 24 percent. He said he would like to see that number get to 80 percent below the 2005 rate.

The report is based on publicly available federal and industry numbers. Samaras said he and co-lead researcher Ines Azeveto hope to add in the “upstream” carbon foot print including the amount of carbon created while removing the fuel from the ground.

The report also finds that the use of coal to produce electricity is rebounding. Natural gas eclipsed coal as the primary fuel source in 2016. With the recent increase in the price of natural gas, coal has begun to gain market share. However, renewables are increasing at a faster rate.  The end of the drought in the western United States has helped to grow the percentage of hydro power in the mix.

(Chart by Carnegie Mellon University via Creative Commons)