The California Energy Picture: Dirtier in 2012

By Jonathan Marshall

Last week I reported the good news: Energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions dropped 3.8 percent across the United States in 2012 to levels last seen in 1994. That represented great progress toward curbing climate-disrupting greenhouse gases.

Now for the bad news: California bucked that trend with a jump of 10.7 percent in CO2 emissions, the second largest percentage increase (after tiny Delaware). In terms of absolute emissions, California far outpaced every other state with an increase of 11.5 million metric tons last year.

How could the country’s clean energy leader go so far off track? According to a new analysis by Rhodium Group, California suffered from the need to rely on more natural gas-fired generation to make up for the loss of Southern California’s San Onofre nuclear power plant, which was closed for repairs of its steam generating unit, and for the decline of hydropower “following a particularly wet 2011.”

Nuclear and hydro power rank among the cleanest sources of energy available, with negligible greenhouse gas emissions.

As a result of those flukes, carbon dioxide emissions from electric power production in California increased 50 percent or 13 million metric tons — accounting for more than the state’s entire increase in CO2 from all energy sources.

Other states like Texas also saw big increases in natural gas-fired generation, but they replaced dirtier coal plants rather than clean nuclear and hydro operations. As a result, their greenhouse emissions declined substantially.

Looking forward, the analysis offers little hope of an immediate turnaround for California. “For California, 2013 doesn’t look much better than 2012,” it concludes. “Hydro generation has remained at last year’s levels and the San Onofre plant is going to be permanently decommissioned.”

But for the longer term, it adds hopefully, California’s ambitious clean energy and climate policies “will matter much more than variation in fuel prices and weather patterns. The question now is whether that policy is implemented successfully and whether other states follow suit.”

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