Which of the cleaner states imports dirty electricity?

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In the United States, electricity generation accounts for nearly 30% of our carbon emissions. Some states have responded to that by setting aggressive renewable energy standards; others are hoping to see coal propped up even as its economics get worse. Complicating matters further is the fact that many regional grids are integrated, meaning power generated in one location may be exported and used in a different state entirely.

Tracking these electricity exports is critical for understanding how to lower our national carbon emissions. In addition, power from a dirty source like coal has health and environment impacts where it’s produced, and the costs of these aren’t always paid by the parties using the electricity. Unfortunately, getting reliable figures on how electricity is produced and where it’s used is challenging, leaving some of the best estimates with a time resolution of only a month.

Now, three Stanford researchers—Jacques A. de Chalendar, John Taggart, and Sally M. Benson—have greatly improved on that standard, and they have managed to track power generation and use on an hourly basis. The researchers found that, of the 66 grid balancing areas within the United States, only three have carbon emissions equivalent to our national average, and they have found that imports and exports of electricity have both seasonal and daily changes. de Chalendar et al. have found that the net results can be substantial, with imported electricity increasing California’s emissions/power by 20%.

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