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Air Pollution from Power Plants Eases Overall, but CO2 Levels Remain High

New Jersey ranked 37th in total carbon-dioxide emissions by tons, a notable achievement given its population and high consumption of electricity

natural gas power plant

The nation’s biggest power producers continue to reduce emissions that contribute to smog and cause health problems, but still need to ratchet up efforts to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, a new analysis shows.

A new report benchmarking emissions from the country’s largest plants producing electricity indicates that significant reductions have been made in the three most ubiquitous pollutants, but less so for carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming.

The declines have occurred even while total electricity and the economy have grown, the report noted. It attributed the trend to increased energy efficiency, retirement of coal-fired power plants, and greater reliance on low- and zero-emitting facilities, such as natural-gas and renewable-energy units.

“The nation’s electric power providers are in the midst of an unprecedented shift toward cleaner sources of energy,’’ said Dan Bakal, director of electric power at Ceres, a nonprofit group involved in climate change issues and a collaborator on the report.

“Yet progress is uneven, which highlights the need for many of the nation’s power providers to accelerate their transition to cleaner resources and lower carbon emissions,’’ Bakal said.

In 2014, carbon-dioxide emissions nationwide totaled 1.96 billion tons -- 14 percent higher than in 1990, although the levels dropped 15 percent between 2005 and 2014.

New Jersey ranked 37th in total carbon-dioxide emissions by tons, a notable achievement given its population and high consumption of electricity. Public Service Enterprise Group, the owner of PSEG Power is the 18th largest power generator in the nation. The Newark company had the third-lowest level among power suppliers in the rate of carbon emissions, a reflection that half of its generation capacity comes from nuclear plants.

“This is not your father’s electric grid anymore,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, referring to the report’s data. “We’ve come a long way, but we’re still a long way off from the carbon reductions we need to solve the climate crisis.’’

Like many other states, New Jersey has set aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, hoping to achieve an 80 percent reduction from levels in 2006 by 2050. Unlike many other states, the power industry is not the biggest source of carbon pollution in New Jersey, ranking behind the transportation sector.

To some extent, there is cause for optimism. In 2014, Texas had 40 percent of its electricity generated from wind resources, a rapidly growing renewable energy resource in some parts of the country. Nevertheless, Texas ranked second among states with the highest carbon dioxide pollution.

Nationwide, power plant emissions from sulfur dioxide -- a source of acid rain --were 80 percent lower and nitrogen oxide emissions, a contributor to smog, which causes breathing problems and other respiratory illnesses, were down 75 percent from 1990. That was when Congress passed the last major amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Mercury air emissions from power plants also dropped 55 percent since 2000. Those declines are projected to continue when new standards for mercury and other hazardous pollutants take effect. Princeton-base NRG, a large independent power producer with plants in Milford, Sayreville, and Plainsboro, ranked in the top 10 of total emissions for all four pollutants analyzed in the report -- sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide.

Based on 2014 generation and emissions data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the report is a collaborative effort between Ceres, Bank of America, power producers, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It is written by M.J. Bradley & Associates.

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