To Reduce Emissions and Protect Consumers, Virginia Increasingly Relies on Natural Gas
Virginia has seen a nearly 40 percent jump in power generation over the past decade. Over that same period, thanks to increased reliance on natural gas, the state’s emissions have fallen.
Unfortunately, a story published by Ben Storrow at E&E News falsely blames natural gas for increased emissions levels in the state through cherry-picked data and an omission of power generation trends – namely, that as the state’s electricity output has grown and the fuel mix has increasingly shifted to natural gas, emissions have remained flat. In fact, since 2010, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have actually declined in Virginia.
Storrow correctly notes the trend in Virginia (like the rest of the country) of the massive shift to natural gas for power generation – which has done more to reduce CO2 emissions than any other fuel source and made the United States the world leader in emissions reductions.
But the story then takes a wrong turn by using a set of data that begins in 2009 when the country was in the midst of the Great Recession and economic output – and therefore emissions – were significantly lower:
“The switch from coal to gas has driven down U.S. electricity emissions over the last decade. But the opposite has happened in Virginia, where a massive build-out of natural gas plants has negated CO2 reductions associated with coal retirements.
“Virginia’s carbon dioxide emissions were higher in 2019 than they were in 2009, according to an E&E News review of EPA emissions data. Those figures are remarkable given the collapse of coal in Virginia, where the fuel fell from being used in about 43% of the state’s power generation in 2008 to less than 10% last year.”
Examining data starting in 2009 sets an artificially low baseline of emissions, which Storrow concedes halfway through the story:
“In emissions terms, the gas build-out has made Virginia something of an anomaly. The state’s power plants emitted 30.3 million tons of CO2 in 2009, according to EPA Clean Air Markets data. That year represents an outlier, as the economic slowdown associated with the Great Recession temporarily reduced emissions.
“Virginia’s CO2 output jumped to 35.7 million tons in 2010, a spike mirrored across the country as the U.S. recovered economically. But where other states’ emissions trended downward in following years, Virginia’s bounced around, peaking at around 36.2 million tons in 2016, before declining to 31 million tons last year.”
This data completely undercuts the story from E&E News.
Proper Context on Emissions
Using 2010 as a starting point – rather than the “outlier” year of 2009 – would be a more appropriate point of comparison. Based on data that Storrow included, emissions in Virginia fell by 13 percent since 2010, the complete opposite of the story’s premise and its equally dubious headline. EID verified the data that Storrow used by reviewing EPA’s Air Markets Program Data.
But even using 2009 as starting point, emissions have remained basically flat. Since 2009, emissions rose only three percent, while power generation in the state increased by nearly 40 percent.
Further underscoring the benefits of natural gas, emissions intensity in Virginia has fallen by 26% from 2009 to 2019 – meaning each megawatt hour produced today yields about 25% less CO2 than one produced a decade ago.
Natural Gas Power Generation
Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) helps tell a more complete story. While total CO2 emissions remained flat – or even decreased – in Virginia over the past decade, power generation from natural gas skyrocketed.
In 2009, natural gas generated 12.2 thousand gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity. By 2019, that had risen to 58.5 thousand GWh – a nearly fivefold increase.
During that same time period, power generation from all fuels rose from 70 thousand GWh to 97.4 thousand GWh – a 39 percent increase. It also means that the share of total power generation from natural gas increased from 17 percent to 60 percent – all while emissions remained essentially flat.
Dominion Energy, a major utility in the state and one of the largest in the nation, has repeatedly cited power generation from natural gas as a crucial fuel to providing customers with affordable, reliable electricity. In fact, even as the energy mix continues to change, the company said its future plans include:
“970 MW of natural gas-fired combustion turbines as a placeholder to address probable system reliability issues resulting from the addition of significant renewable energy resources and the retirement of coal-fired facilities.”
Dominion also praised the environmental benefits of natural gas, saying it is “building additional efficient and lower-emitting natural gas-fired power generating sources.”
Virginia is the focus of a heated debate about the future of electricity, as the state’s new Virginia Clean Economy Act mandates a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels. Some lawmakers and activists have pressured power generators to move away from affordable and clean fuels like natural gas, all in the name of addressing climate change and reducing pollution. Unfortunately, Storrow’s dubious narrative plays into that debate in the worst possible way, giving anti-fossil fuel advocates something that many may see as a validator of their claim that natural gas only hurts our ability to address climate change.
The data, however, tell a completely different story. In Virginia, like in other states around the country, natural gas is doing more than any other fuel to generate affordable, reliable power while reducing CO2 emissions.