Why marginal CO2 emissions are not decreasing for US electricity: Estimates and implications for climate policy

Matthew Kotchen and 3 other contributors

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    Marginal emissions of CO2 from the electricity sector are critical for evaluating climate policies that rely on shifts in electricity demand or supply. This paper provides estimates of marginal CO2 emissions from US electricity generation using the most recently available and comprehensive data. The estimates vary by region, hour of the day, and year to year over the last decade. We identify an important and somewhat counterintuitive finding: While average emissions have decreased substantially over the last decade (28% nationally), marginal emissions have increased (7% nationally). We show that underlying these trends is primarily a shift toward greater reliance on coal to satisfy marginal electricity use. We apply our estimates to an analysis of the Biden administration's target of having electric vehicles (EVs) make up 50% of new vehicle purchases by 2030. We find that, without significant and concurrent changes to the electricity sector, the increase in electricity emissions is likely to offset more than half of the emission reductions from having fewer gasoline-powered vehicles on the road. Moreover, using average rather than marginal emissions to predict the impacts significantly overestimates the emission benefits. Overall, we find that the promise of EVs for reducing emissions depends, to a large degree, on complementary policies that decarbonize both average and marginal emissions in the electricity sector.