EIA: Power sector sees decline in carbon intensity

Dive Brief:

  • The industrial and power sectors produced the least amount of carbon dioxide per unit of primary energy consumed last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). 
  • The electric power sector, which EIA noted was previously one of the more carbon-intensive sectors, produced 48 kg CO2/MMBtu in 2016.
  • Earlier this year, EIA said new analysis showed carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector had fallen below those from transportation, a reversal not seen in the United States since the late 1970s. 

Dive Insight:

Efficiency of the electric power industry continues to improve, and is now second only to the industrial in terms of a sharp decline in carbon intensity. According to federal data, of the five major energy-consuming sectors in the United States, the industrial sector produced the least CO2 per unit of primary energy consumed in 2016, followed by the electric power sector.

Carbon intensities reflect the consumption-weighted average of the carbon intensities of the primary fuels consumed in each sector. For the industrial sector, the average was 44 kg CO2/MMBtu compared with the electric sector's 48 kg CO2/MMBtu.

"Primary fuels" include coal, natural gas, distillate heating fuel, diesel, gasoline, and propane. Among those, coal is the most intensive (about 100 kg CO2/MMBtu) and gas (53 kg CO2/MMBtu) is least.


The industrial sector gets a leg up for a couple of reasons, according to EIA: the pulp and paper industry, which accounts for approximately 7% of total delivered industrial energy consumption, is a large consumer of biogenic material. The agency says its calculation of carbon intensities "uses the convention that emissions from biomass combustion do not count as net energy-related CO2 emissions because biogenic fuels are produced as part of a natural cycle that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the growth phase."

The agency applies the same theory to wood heating in the residential sector and ethanol consumption in the transportation sector.

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