Just before President Barack Obama announced his Clean Power Plan in August, the Washington Post released a series of interactive charts illustrating America’s electricity landscape, placing the country’s thousands of power plants on a map and outlining which states are most reliant on which energy sources.
Obama’s plan, which seeks to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030, is now coming under renewed scrutiny because it represents the president’s contribution to the international discussion taking place during this week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Obama’s proposal is, in large part, to set a deadline by which each state must submit a plan to reduce its dependence on high-polluting coal and shift to use of cleaner energy sources.
As the Washington Post illustrated, in two charts that can be previewed in the gallery above or viewed by clicking here, Maine is ahead of the game in that regard.
According to the Post’s figures, compiled from January through May of this year, Maine gets 27 percent of its electricity from hydro power plants (1,456 gigawatt-hours during that five-month time period) and 23 percent (1,221 gigawatt-hours) from natural gas.
The state gets 11 percent (579 gigawatt-hours over that period) of its electricity from wind power and 9 percent (492 gigawatt-hours) from oil-powered plants, and a comparatively tiny amount from coal (59 gigawatt-hours).
It’s worth pointing out that these charts are showing where states get their electricity, in particular. States like Maine consume significant amounts of oil for heating and transportation, for instance, and that consumption wouldn’t necessarily show up in these numbers.
West Virginia, by comparison, gets 95 percent — nearly 30,000 gigawatt-hours over five month — of its electricity from coal plants, and Kentucky, Wyoming and Missouri all get at least 80 percent of their electricity from coal. The top natural gas user is Rhode Island, which gets 91 percent of its electricity from that source, while South Carolina is the country’s nuclear power consumption capital, at 57 percent.
The biggest chunk of Maine’s electricity (29 percent) comes from what the Post categorized as miscellaneous “other” sources, a group that included, among other things, biomass energy. Biomass is a somewhat broad category describing the burning of plant-based material, and importantly for Maine, includes wood.
While burning wood does produce carbon dioxide, it’s often considered a cleaner energy source than coal because trees absorb carbon dioxide to grow — essentially, a tree will have taken the same amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as it ultimately puts back into it, so it’s a roughly break-even proposition.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted the state’s head start on meeting the president’s clean energy goals in her response to his proposal in August, and urged Obama to officially recognize biomass as a cleaner alternative to coal in his plan.
“Maine has already made substantial progress in reducing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, spurring the adoption of clean energy technologies, and improving air quality and public health,” she said at the time, in part. “In addition, biomass energy is a sustainable, responsible, renewable, and economically significant energy source.”
It’s important to note that biomass isn’t universally lauded as a clean energy source.
The nonprofit Climate Central reported earlier this fall it found “burning trees as fuel in power plants is heating the atmosphere more quickly than coal,” noting that while trees can be regrown, that resource replenishment takes decades, and growing trees don’t functionally keep up with the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted by the wood burning worldwide.