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Understanding Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electric Power Generation

Susan E. Powers, Clarkson University, Potsdam NY

June 2011


Type:  Project module with 3-4 activities to explore electricity generation and use and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions

Length:  4 45-miute classes

Content Area/Course: Physical science, environmental science, engineering/technology

Targeted Grade Level:  Adaptable for middle school to undergraduate college students

Prerequisite Knowledge: Quantitative ability, some understanding of various resources and processes used to make electricity

Prerequisite Skills: Data manipulation and calculation in MS Excel spreadsheet (for college students), basic internet skills

Technology/web resources: Internet, MS Excel

Thinking skill development: Comprehension, synthesis, evaluation

NASA Resources used: None


Electric power in the United States is primarily generated through the combustion of fossil fuels, with nearly 50% of the total generation attributed to coal combustion.  Based on an equivalent amount of electric energy generated, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal combustion are nearly twice as much than natural gas, and GHG emissions from nuclear, hydropower and renewables are negligible.  In contrast, New York State uses much less coal for electricity generation and more hydro and nuclear energy, both of which generate negligible amounts of greenhouse gases. Thus, how we make electricity, even the choice among which fossil fuel to use, can have a big impact on our GHG emissions.

Figure 1

This unit explores regional differences in the mix of energy sources used for electricity generation and the impact of that on regional GHG emissions.  Introductory activities help to define efficiency of power plants and why that is important for understanding lifecycle GHG emissions from electric power production.  The unit culminates in the use of the U.S. EPA Power Profiler tool to explore regional electricity generation