Benjamin Storrow, E&E News
Natural gas power plants are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases. The Eagle Valley plant in Indiana is pictured. (Photo: Indianapolis Power & Light)
America has followed a simple formula for reducing carbon emissions this century: Retire old coal plants, replace them with natural gas, add a dash of renewables.
But the limitations of that approach came into focus in 2018, when power-sector emissions rose for the first time in five years. That bump was all the more notable given a near-record year for coal plant retirements (Climatewire, Jan. 2).
The increase raises questions about America's reliance on coal-to-gas switching to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. And it underscores the stark reality facing U.S. carbon cutters: The chief source of emissions reductions in recent years has not been wind or solar. It's a fossil fuel.
"This isn't the huge transition that is necessary to meet the climate challenge, and I do think utilities are a big part of it," said Leah Stokes, a professor who studies power-sector and political trends at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's easier to build a natural gas plant, fits with business as usual, and they can ramp it on and off."