Tag Archives: coal

Debunking Trump’s Claim of “War on Beautiful, Clean Coal” Using Graphs

In President Trump’s first State of the Union Address last week, a wide range of topics in the Administration’s agenda were covered extensively while energy was largely pushed to the side. Trump did include two sentences on his self-described push for “American Energy Dominance,” and these two sentences sent wonks in the energy industry into a frenzy on social media:

“We have ended the war on American energy. And we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.”

My Twitter feed lit up with various energy journalists and market watchers who noted the impressiveness that just 18 words over two sentences could contain so many misleading, or outright false, claims.

Source

As one of those energy reporters who immediately took to Twitter with my frustration, I thought I would follow up on these statements last week with arguments why the claims of ‘clean coal’ and the supposed ‘war’ on it do not reflect the reality the Trump Administration would have you believe, and I’ll do so with just a handful of graphs.



What is ‘clean coal’?

As a pure fuel, coal is indisputably the ‘dirtiest’ energy source in common use in the power sector, accounting for about 100 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide (CO2) per million British thermal unit (MMBtu) of energy output. This output is notably larger than other major energy sources, including natural gas (about 50 kg/MMBtu), petroleum products like propane and gasoline (about 60 to 70 kg/MMBtu), and carbon neutral fuels like nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. In the face of the scientific consensus on CO2’s contributions to climate change, many have noted that one of the best actions that can be taken in the energy industry is to shift away from coal to fuels that emit less CO2— which has definitively given coal a dirty reputation.

The premise of ‘clean coal’ is largely a PR push (literally invented by an advertising agency in 2008)– an ingenious marketing term, but one that does not have much in the way of legs. When you hear politicians talking about ‘clean coal,’ it is usually referring to one or more of the following suite of technologies:

  • Washing coal before it’s burned to remove soil and rock and thus reduce ash and weight of the coal;
  • Using wet scrubbers on the gas generated from burning coal to remove the sulfur dioxide from being released;
  • Various carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for new or existing coal plants that intervene in the coal burning process (either pre-combustion or post-combustion) to capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced from its burning and then sending it miles underground for permanent storage instead of releasing it into the atmosphere; or
  • Anything done to the coal-fired power plant to increase the efficiency of the entire process of generating electricity (e.g., the 700 Megawatt supercritical coal plant in West Virginia that is so efficient it reportedly releases 20% less CO2 than older coal plants) and reduce the overall emissions.

Source

When most in the energy industry discuss ‘clean coal’ technology, they are typically referring to CCS. However it should be noted that Trump did not mention CCS by name in this (or any) speech. Some analysts have noted that the White House’s attempts to cut CCS funding and send the Secretaries of the Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to supercritical coal plants are not-so-subtle hints that the Trump Administration’s preferred type of ‘clean coal’ is improving the efficiency of coal-fired generation. Even Bob Murray, the influential coal magnate, has written to the President to indicate his contempt for CCS, calling it a ‘pseudonym for no coal,‘ echoing the concerns of many proponents of coal that CCS is being pushed as the only ‘clean coal’ option so that if/when it fails (due to economic impracticalities) it would be the death knell of coal-fired generation altogether.

So regardless of which ‘clean coal’ technology the Trump Administration supports, issues remain. With regard to wet scrubbers, coal washing, and general plant efficiency improvements, the reductions in CO2 emissions are not nearly enough to compete with cleaner fuels. Even if all coal plants could be made 20% more efficient (and less reduce CO2 emissions by about 20%) like the West Virginia supercritical plant, which would be a massive undertaking, it would still result in coal generation being among the dirtiest energy in the country.

With regard to CCS, not only is the cost one of the biggest issues (which will be looked at in more detail later), but it does not remove all the pollutants from burning coal. Even with the most effective CCS capturing 90% of CO2 emissions, that leaves 10% of CO2 making its way into the atmosphere along with the other notable pollutants in coal gas (including mercury, nitrogen oxide, and other poisonous contaminants). When compared with the carbon neutral energy sources increasingly gaining ground in the United States, coal plants with CCS still hardly seem clean.

Again, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) listing of carbon dioxide emissions coefficients shows the CO2 emissions associated with different fuel types when burned as fuel. As previously noted, coal is the far-away leader on CO2 emissions coefficients as a pure fuel. In DOE analysis of future-built generation (an analysis that focuses on the costs and values of different types of power plants to be built in the future, which will come up again in more detail later), the only type of coal generation even considered is coal with either 30% or 90% carbon sequestration, with 90% being the technological ceiling and 30% being the minimum example of new coal-fired generation that would still be compliant with the Clean Air Act. The below graph, our first in demonstrating the issues with claims of a ‘war on beautiful, clean coal,’ plots the CO2 coefficients of major fuel sources in the U.S. power sector, including coal using no CCS, 30% CCS, or 90% CCS. Existing power plants do not have the same requirements under the Clean Air Act, so they might still be producing CO2 at the far right of the ‘coal’ bar (indeed, last year almost 70% of U.S. coal was delivered to power plants that are at least 38 years old meaning they are likely far from the most efficient coal plants out there). Coal plants that are touted as ‘clean’ because of their up to 20% increases in efficiency would still find themselves in the same (or greater) range of emissions as 30% CCS coal plants, while 90% CCS coal plants appear to the be the only ones that can compete with other fuels environmentally (though it comes at a potentially prohibitive cost, which will show up in a later graph).

Note that the data for these CO2 emission coefficients come from this EIA listing. The lines for 30%/90% CCS are not just drawn 30%/90% lower, but rather account for the presence of CCS requiring more energy and thus cause a dip in efficiency– this graph uses the rough efficiency drop assumed for CCS plants in this International Energy Agency report

These numbers paint a scary picture of coal and are the source of what causes many energy prognosticators to scoff at the utterance of ‘beautiful, clean coal,’ though it is important to be clear that these numbers don’t tell the whole story. While nuclear and renewable energy sources do not emit any fuel-related CO2, they are not completely carbon neutral over their lifetimes, as the building, operation, and maintenance of nuclear and renewable generation plants (as with any utility-scale generation source) all have their own non-zero effect on the environment. However, since fuel makes up the vast majority of carbon output in the electricity generation sector, any discussion of clean vs. dirty energy must return to these numbers.

Further, the separation of dispatchable vs. non-dispatchable technologies (i.e., energy sources whose output can be varied to follow demand vs. those that are tied to the availability of an intermittent resource) shown in the above graph is important. Until batteries and other energy-storage technologies reach a point technologically and economically to assist renewable (non-dispatchable) energy sources fill in the times when the energy resource is unavailable, dispatchable technologies will always be necessary to plug the gaps. So regardless of what drawbacks might exist for each of the dispatchable technologies, CO2 emissions and overall costs included, at least some dispatchable energy  will still be critical in the coming decades.

Who is orchestrating the ‘war on coal’?

Even with the knowledge that coal will never truly be ‘clean,’ the question then becomes why haven’t the advancements in coal energy that is cleaner and more efficient than traditional coal-fired plants become more prominent in the face of climate and environmental concerns? The common talking point from the Trump Administration is that there is a biased war on coal being orchestrated, and the actions of President Trump to roll back regulation is the only way to fight back against this unjust onslaught that the coal industry is facing. But again, from where is this onslaught coming?

The answer to this question is actually pretty easy– it’s not regulation that is causing coal to lose its place as the king of the U.S. power sector, it’s competition from more affordable energy sources (that also happen to be cleaner). The two charts below demonstrate this pointedly, with the left graph showing the fuel makeup of the U.S. electric power sector since 1990 along with the relative carbon intensity of the major CO2-emitting fuel sources, while the right graph shows what’s happened to the price of each each major fuel type over the past decade. The carbon intensity shown on the left graph is even more indicative than the first graph above in detailing the actual degree to which each fuel is ‘clean’ as it factors in the efficiency of plants using the fuel and indicates the direct CO2 emissions relative to electricity delivered to customers.

Click to enlarge

Note that the costs are taken from this EIA chart, with coal taken from fossil steam, natural gas taken from gas turbine and small scale, and wind/solar taken as the gas turbine and small scale price after removing the cost of fuel. Electric power generation and carbon emission data taken from this EIA source

Just from analysing these two graphs, a number of key observations and conclusions can be made about the electric power sector and coal’s evolving place in it:

  • In 1990, coal accounted for almost 1.6 million Gigawatt-hours (GWh) of power generation, representing 52% of the sector. By 2016, that figure dropped to 1.2 million GWh or 30% of U.S. power generation.
  • Over that same time period, natural gas went from less than 400,000 GWh (12%) to almost 1.4 million GWh (34%); nuclear went from less than 600,000 GWh (19%) to over 800 GWh (20%), and combined wind and solar went from 3,000 GWh (0.1%) to over 260,000 GWh (6%).
  • While the coal sector’s carbon intensity hovered around 1.0 kg of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produced from 1990 to 2016 (even as CCS and other ‘clean coal’ technologies began to break into the market), natural gas dropped from 0.6 kg CO2/kWh to less than 0.5 kg CO2/kWh, while nuclear, wind, and solar do not have any emissions associated with their generation (again noting that there are some emissions associated with the operation and maintenance of these technologies, but they are neglible compared with fossil fuel-related emissions). The drop in natural gas carbon intensity combined with coal losing ground to natural gas, nuclear, and renewable energy led the electric power sector’s overall average carbon intensity to drop from over 0.6 kg CO2/kWh to less than 0.5 kg CO2/kWh.
  • While the narrative some would prefer to push is that coal is getting replaced because of a regulatory ‘war on coal,’ the real answer comes from the right graph where the cost to generated a kWh of electricity for coal increased notably from 2006 to 2016. Meanwhile, natural gas (which started the decade more expensive than coal) experienced a drastic drop in price to become cheaper than coal (thanks to advances in natural gas production technologies) while the low cost of nuclear fuel and ‘free’ cost of wind and solar allowed these energy sources to start and remain well below the total cost of coal generation. This natural, free-market competition from other energy sources, thanks to increasingly widespread availability and ever decreasing prices, is what put pressure on coal and ultimately led to natural gas dethroning coal as the predominant energy source in the U.S. power sector.

What these two graphs show is that the energy market is naturally evolving, there is no conspiratorial ‘war’ on coal. The technologies behind solar and wind are improving, getting cheaper, and becoming more prolific for economic, environmental, and accessibility reasons. Nuclear power is holding strong in its corner of the electricity market. Natural gas, more than any other, is getting cheaper and much more prominent to the U.S. power sector (while having the benefit of about half the CO2 emissions of coal), which is what has made it the natural ‘enemy’ of coal of the past decade or two. All that’s to say, the only ‘war on coal’ that’s been widespread in recent memory is a capitalistic, free-market war that will naturally play out when new energy sources are available at cheaper prices and contribute significantly less to climate change.

Will Trump policies reverse the course of coal in the United States?

Going back to the statement from Trump’s State of the Union Address, he claimed that his Administration had ended the war on clean coal. As stated previously, there was never an outward war on coal that was hindering the fuel. Even still, the main policy change from the Trump Administration with regard to coal was to repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that aimed to cut carbon emissions from power generation.  However, many analysts predicted that would not change the current trends, as repealing the CPP does nothing to reverse the pricing pattern of the fuels. Indeed, this week EIA released its Annual Energy Outlook for 2018 and confirmed the tough future that coal generation has compared with natural gas and renewables– both with and without the CPP. While the CPP reduces the projections of coal generation, it doesn’t move the needle all that much and natural gas and renewables are still shown to surpass coal.

Source

So the major policy decision of the Trump Administration with respect to coal generation doesn’t appear to reverse the course of coal’s future. Again, this conclusion isn’t terribly surprising considering the economics of coal compared with other fuels. EIA projects the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) for different type of new power generation (assumed to be added in 2022) which serves to show the relative costs to install new power generation. In the same analysis, EIA projects Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation (LACE), which can be thought of as the ‘value’ of the new generation to the grid (for more detailed description in the calculations and uses of these measures, read through the full report). When the LACE is equal or greater than the LCOE, that is in indication of a financially viable type of power to build (evaluated over the lifetime of the plant). So by looking at the relative costs (LCOE) of each power type and whether or not they are exceeded by their values (LACE), we can get a clear picture of what fuel types are going to be built in the coming years (and to continue the focus on whether coal or other fuels are ‘clean,’ let’s put the economics graph side-by-side with the CO2 emissions coefficients):

Click to enlarge

Note that the source of the data on the left graph is the EIA Levelized Cost of Electricity analysis, with the ends of the boxes representing the minimum and maximum values and the line in the middle representing the average– the difference in possible values comes from variations in power plants, such as geographic differences in availability and cost of fuel. Also note that, counter-intuitively, EIA’s assumed costs for 30% CCS are actually greater than for 90% CCS because the 30% CCS coal plants would ‘still be considered a high emitter relative to other new sources and thus may continue to face potential financial risk if carbon emissions controls are further strengthened. Again, the data for the right graph takes CO2 emission coefficients from this EIA listing by fuel type

Looking at these graphs, we can see that the cost of new coal generation (regardless of CCS level) not only exceeds the value it would bring to the grid, but also largely exceeds the cost of natural gas, nuclear, geothermal, biomass, onshore wind, solar photovoltaic (PV), and hydroelectric power (all of which emit less CO2 than coal). Thus even in the scenario where 90% of carbon is captured by CCS (which allows it to be ‘cleaner’ than natural gas and biomass), it still comes at a significant cost premium compared with most of the other fuel types. These are the facts that are putting the hurt on the coal industry, not any policy-based ‘war on coal.’ Even the existing tax credits that are given to renewable energy generation are minor when looking at the big picture, as the below graph (which repeats the above graph but removes the renewable tax credits from the equation) shows. Even if these tax credits are allowed to expire, the renewable technology would still outperform coal both economically and environmentally.

Click to enlarge

The last graphical rebuttal to President Trump’s statement on energy and coal during the State of the Union that I’ll cite comes from Tyler Norris, a DOE adviser under President Obama:

Source

As pointed out by Norris and other energy journalists chiming in during the State of the Union address, if the goal were to expand ‘clean coal,’ then the Trump Administration’s budget is doing the opposite by taking money away from DOE programs that support the research and development of the technology. In fact, at the end of last week a leaked White House budget proposal indicated even further slashes to the DOE budget that would further hamper the ability of the government to give a leg up to the development of ‘clean coal’ technology. Any war on energy is coming from the Trump Administration, and any battle that coal is fighting is coming from the free market of cheaper and cleaner fuels.

Sources and additional reading

20 Years of Carbon Capture and Storage: International Energy Agency

Annual Energy Outlook 2018: Energy Information Administration

Average Power Plant Operating Expenses for Major U.S. Investor-Owned Electric Utilities, 2006 through 2016: Energy Information Administration

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Coefficients: Energy Information Administration

Did Trump End the War on Clean Coal? Fact-Checking the President’s State of the Union Claim: Newsweek

How Does Clean Coal Work? Popular Mechanics

How much carbon dioxide is produced per kilowatthour when generating electricity with fossil fuels? Energy Information Administration

Is There Really Such a Thing as Clean Coal? Big Think

Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2017: Energy Information Administration

Trump touts end of ‘war on beautiful, clean coal’ in State of the Union: Utility Dive

Trump’s Deceptive Energy Policy: New York Times

What is clean coal technology: How Stuff Works

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

Best from “Today in Energy” in 2017

Among the wide array of regular articles the Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases, as detailed in this post on navigating EIA’s data sets , one of the most varied and interesting is the Today in Energy (TIE) series of articles released every weekday. According to EIA, TIE articles “provide topical, timely, short articles with energy news and information you can understand and use.”   

What makes TIE particularly compelling to read each day is that the topics it covers range across the spectrum of energy-related topics. Where most of the other reports released by the EIA are restricted to a specific fuel type or survey of consumers, TIE articles bring all of these topics from across EIA into relevant, digestible, and fascinating briefs to give a broad spectrum of information to its readers.



Further, TIE articles feature both stories that are relevant and important to current events (e.g., Hurricane Irma may cause problems for East Coast energy infrastructure) and stories that provide useful background information that can be referenced for years to come (e.g., Crude oil distillation and the definition of refinery). Not only that, but keeping up with TIE articles is a great way to keep up with other EIA publications as well, such as when articles such as the Annual Energy Outlook, International Energy Outlook, or Short-Term Energy Outlook are posted, TIE often includes an overview of some of the relevant conclusions of those articles and a link to read the full version.

To prove how valuable TIE articles can be for all these reasons, I’ve picked a sampling of 13 of my favorite TIE articles thus far in 2017 that are particularly interesting and demonstrate the cross-cutting topics offered by TIE. The ones I’ve chosen are based on the topics I find the most engaging, as well as the graphics that are the most clever and elegant.

1. EIA’s AEO2017 projects the United States to be a net energy exporter in most cases

January 5, 2017

Released the same morning as the Annual Energy Outlook 2017 (AEO2017), this article demonstrates the tendency of TIE to alert the readers of the latest EIA publications, while also providing a good overview to new readers as to what AEO2017 is and what the main takeaways from the report were.

2. Canada is the United States’ largest partner for energy trade

March 1, 2017

Utilizing the latest data from the U.S. census bureau, this article details the energy imports/exports between the United States and Canada broken out by U.S. region and fuel type and demonstrates TIE articles on the topic of trade. Most interesting is the graph showing the difference in electricity trade over the years from each of four U.S. regions.

Source: Energy Information Administration

3. U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell 1.7% in 2016

April 10, 2017

This TIE article from April breaks down carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions data, from the Monthly Energy Review, from 2005 to 2016 by both emitting fuel and industry, while also introducing carbon intensity as a metric and shows the progress made in reducing energy-related carbon intensity over the previous decade. As climate change heats up as an issue in domestic politics, industry, and foreign affairs, this type of window into U.S. CO2 emission data can prove invaluable.

4. Most U.S. nuclear power plants were built between 1970 and 1990

April 27, 2017

I chose this article because it provides a fascinating chart that shows the initial operating year of utility-scale generation capacity across the United States, broken out by fuel type, to demonstrate the relative age of each source of electricity generation and, in particular, the relative old age of the U.S. nuclear generating capacity, while also showing the explosion of non-hydroelectric renewable generation since the turn of the century.

Source: Energy Information Administration

5. American households use a variety of lightbulbs as CFL and LED consumption increases

May 8, 2017

An example of a TIE article getting into the use of energy inside of U.S. homes, this piece takes information from the 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) to show how residential lighting choices have been trending in the face of increased regulation and availability of energy-efficient lighting technologies, highlighting the differences depending on renter vs. owner occupied, household income, and whether or not an energy audit has been performed.

6. More than half of small-scale photovoltaic generation comes from residential rooftops

June 1, 2017

Utilizing data from the Electric Power Monthly, this article breaks out the use of small-scale solar power systems based on the geographic location and type of building, highlighting the rapid rise these systems have experienced in the residential sector, as a great example of renewable energy in the residential sector.

7. Dishwashers are among the least-used appliances in American homes

June 19, 2017

Again taking data from RECS, this TIE article provides insights on the frequency that certain appliances are in American homes, how often they go unused in those homes, pervasiveness of ENERGY STAR compliant appliances, and other data regarding residential energy use of appliances. This article also includes a plug for the 2017 EIA Energy Conference that was to be held a week after its publication, again showing how good of a job reading TIE articles daily can do of making sure you know the latest happenings at EIA.

8. Earthquake trends in Oklahoma and other states likely related to wastewater injection

June 22, 2017

A reason I find this TIE article particularly interesting is that it goes beyond just the energy data collected by EIA and synchs with outside data from the Earthquake Catalog to show additional effects of energy production in the environment. This kind of interplay of data sources demonstrates how powerful EIA data collection can be when analyzed in proper context.

9. Monthly renewable electricity generation surpasses nuclear for the first time since 1984

July 6, 2017

I highlight this TIE article for two reasons. First, the graphic below showing the monthly generation of nuclear compared with the cumulative generation of renewable energies—and the highlighting of 2016-17 particular—is really illuminating. This graph is a great demonstration of the power of data visualizations to convey the data and the message of that data. Second, the reason behind that graphic—that monthly renewable generation surpassed nuclear generation for the first time in over three decades—is a remarkable achievement of the renewable energy sector, showing the trending direction of the U.S. fuel mix going forward.

Source: Energy Information Administration

10. California wholesale electricity prices are higher at the beginning and end of the day

July 24, 2017

This TIE article was identified because of how interesting the topic of wholesale electricity prices varying throughout the day can be. As net metering and residential production of electricity increases across the United States, this will be a topic those in the energy fields will want to keep a keen eye on.

11. Among states, Texas consumes the most energy, Vermont the least

August 2, 2017

Grabbing data from the State Energy Data System, this TIE article presents a graphic displaying the most and least overall energy use as well as the most and least energy use per capita among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Using color to demonstrate the relative consumption and consumption per capita creates a pair of really elegant visuals.

Source: Energy Information Administration

 

12. Solar eclipse on August 21 will affect photovoltaic generators across the country

August 7, 2017

As everyone was scrambling to find their last minute eclipse glasses, this TIE article detailed where, and how much, the total solar eclipse of August 2017 was to diminish solar photovoltaic capacity and an assessment of how local utilities will be able to handle their peak loads during this time (a nice follow up TIE article on this also looked at how California dealt with these issues on the day of the eclipse, increasing electricity imports and natural gas generation).

Source: Energy Information Administration

13. U.S. average retail gasoline prices increase in wake of Hurricane Harvey

September 6, 2017

Another example of TIE addressing energy-related current events, this article not only provides the information and analysis of the effect that Hurricane Harvey had on retail gasoline prices, but it also provides the context of why the effect was being felt, how it compared to previous hurricanes, and what could be expected moving forward.

 

 

If you’ve been sufficiently convinced that Today in Energy articles would be an engaging read to start the day, you can sign up for an email subscription by following this link.

 

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

President Obama’s Energy and Environmental Legacy

In the Fall 2016 issue of The Current, the quarterly online magazine from the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment (WCEE), I wrote a retrospective on now-former President Obama’s energy and environmental legacy as compared with his campaign promises. The main conclusion of that article was that Obama was leaving office with mixed results when it came to delivering on his stated goals in the energy and environmental spheres, and that the long-term legacy of those achievements would rest on the action or inaction of his yet-to-be-determined successor. With about a year having passed since publication of that article, and almost eight months for President Trump to have set the course for his energy and environmental agenda, I thought it would be interested to see how some of the initial conclusions have held up and how the new administration has followed up on those specific issues.



A quick note that this article will be slightly more politically based than I intend to take typically in this outlet. The goal of this blog will be to provide more straightforward information and analysis based in data, rather than take a side on any specific partisan debate. I want to give you the information and tools, and you can interpret it however you choose. However because this deals with an article that was already published, I thought it might be worth checking into the facts again after a year.

The makeup of the national energy supply

Obama campaign promise: Clean coal and nuclear power will find a place to stay

Conclusion in initial article: Mixed results— Clean coal remains elusive; nuclear was showing promise under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan (CPP), which ended up getting stalled until courts could review

Update: Progress has been further stalled— Pushing of clean coal to revitalize the coal industry has long been a part of President Trump’s energy plan. However there has not been appreciable increases in the implementation of clean coal—and the construction of a first-of-its-kind clean coal power plant in Mississippi was indefinitely suspended after falling far behind schedule and beyond budget.

When it comes to the CPP, the Trump administration has moved forward on its campaign promise to roll it back. In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt informed states that they are not obligated to meet the deadlines set by the CPP while was still stalled in the judicial system.

The overall result is that the push to increase the portion of the nation’s energy supply made up by clean coal and nuclear power has stalled. The energy-related carbon dioxide intensity of coal has remained steady for years, indicating the proportion of ‘clean coal’ to total coal has not made significant gains. Similarly the below graph shows that the total power generation from nuclear, as well as the percentage of overall American energy generation attributed to nuclear, has remained steady for the last decade.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

Clean tech investment and job growth

Obama campaign promise: Invest $150 billion over 10 years to deploy clean technologies and create millions of new jobs

Conclusion in initial article: Partially successful— the investment was exceeded by 2014, but the number of jobs created in the space fell well short of millions

Update: Inconclusive—For the entirety of Obama’s second term and since the Trump administration has taken office, the U.S. economy has consistently added jobs every month. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped providing data on “green jobs” in 2013. In absence of this monthly data, the best source to track jobs in the clean tech space is the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) U.S. Energy and Employment Report, issued annually in January. As such, it is impossible to know if the new jobs added to the economy are in the clean technologies, though some industry and government leaders have expressed concern that the Trump decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement will negatively impact the prospects for clean tech growth and employment.

Renewable electricity

Obama campaign promise: Increase percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources to 10% by 2012 and 25% by 2025

Conclusion in initial article: Mostly successful— reached 12% by 2012 but plateaued at about 13% through 2015

Update: Progress being made—While the Trump Administration has not focused on policies to specifically encourage renewable energy policies, market forces continue to encourage the penetration of renewable electricity generation. Annual data showed renewable energy generation reaching 15% in 2016 with EIA forecasting that to increase to 17% in 2017 and 16% in 2018.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

 

Industrial energy efficiency

Obama campaign promise: Promote energy efficiency with industrial manufacturers

Conclusion in initial article: Awaiting results— Obama issued an executive order in 2010 that would achieve $100 billion in energy savings, but the results were to be measured over the following 10 years

Update: Still waiting—Obviously a one year update won’t change the conclusion that these results were still be measured over 10 years, which have not yet passed, so we’ll still await the outcome of this one. While no actions have been taken by President Trump to undue the executive order fulfilling Obama’s campaign promise focusing on national energy efficiency, it is noteworthy that President Trump’s approach to national energy issues has instead been to roll back regulations seen as impeding the development of U.S. energy resources (focusing on oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy).

Government support of oil companies

Obama campaign promise: Eliminate tax breaks to big oil companies

Conclusion in initial article: No progress— Obama’s attempt to eliminate oil tax breaks were rejected by Congress for all of Obama’s proposed budgets

Update: No expected progress– President Trump’s priorities are notably different than Obama’s were, so the status quo of the tax breaks for oil companies are wholly expected to persist, as doing otherwise would not be seen as progress by Trump. On the contrary, there has been speculation of Trump expanding government aid to prop up the coal industry as well. These actions would keep with a worldwide trend according to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund that concluded fossil fuel subsidies, at $5.5 trillion annually, account for 6.5% of the global GDP.

Carbon emissions

Obama campaign promise: Make significant progress to reduce the national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions

Conclusion in initial article: Jury still out— CPP would reduce CO2 emissions from power plants for the first time, but the Supreme Court placed a hold on the implementation

Update: As noted earlier, one of Obama’s signature energy accomplishments in the CPP is on life support after the Trump administration signaled to states that they would not be held to the emission requirements. However, U.S. CO2 emissions might be another area where the market forces are already in play to affect the outcome regardless of executive action or inaction. The below two graphs from EIA show a forecast continued drop in CO2 emissions per capita and a drastic drop in total CO2 emissions from a peak in 2019 to a minimum in 2033 (before again increasing due to growing population levels). This drop in CO2 emissions in the absence of federal policy comes because of the continuously falling price of less carbon intensive fuels such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewable energy sources compared with coal and petroleum, in addition to individual states and companies pledging to reduce emissions regardless of whether or not the CPP becomes law.

EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook
EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook

Conclusion

Obama was elected after campaigning on addressing climate change and promising federal action to reduce impacts of the energy sector. Upon his imminent departure from office, giving him a grade on fulfilling his campaign promises proved difficult due to some of the long-term nature of potential results as well as the impact his successor could potentially have on furthering or rolling back parts of his agenda. With the benefit of another year to reflect upon, the conclusion of Obama’s legacy as being overall mixed seems even more entrenched due to the contrasting views held by President Trump. While the dominoes of some of his actions (such as federal investment in clean tech and industrial energy efficiency) are still falling, some of his more ambitious attempts (namely the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement) have been thwarted by the Trump administration.

If you’re interested in watching the energy makeup of the United States, the relative carbon emissions, or the overall total energy used across the nation, stay tuned for a primer I’m planning on the EIA’s vast public datasets to show you how you can find that raw data yourself.

 

 

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.