Physics:Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources

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Measurement of life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions involves calculating the global-warming potential of electrical energy sources through life-cycle assessment of each energy source. The findings are presented in units of global warming potential per unit of electrical energy generated by that source. The scale uses the global warming potential unit, the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO
e), and the unit of electrical energy, the kilowatt hour (kWh). The goal of such assessments is to cover the full life of the source, from material and fuel mining through construction to operation and waste management.

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change harmonized the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO
e) findings of the major electricity generating sources in use worldwide. This was done by analyzing the findings of hundreds of individual scientific papers assessing each energy source.[1] Coal is by far the worst emitter, followed by natural gas, with solar, wind and nuclear all low-carbon. Hydropower, biomass, geothermal and ocean power may generally be low-carbon, but poor design or other factors could result in higher emissions from individual power stations.

For all technologies, advances in efficiency, and therefore reductions in CO
e since the time of publication, have not been included. For example, the total life cycle emissions from wind power may have lessened since publication. Similarly, due to the time frame over which the studies were conducted, nuclear Generation II reactor's CO
e results are presented and not the global warming potential of Generation III reactors. Other limitations of the data include: a) missing life cycle phases, and, b) uncertainty as to where to define the cut-off point in the global warming potential of an energy source. The latter is important in assessing a combined electrical grid in the real world, rather than the established practice of simply assessing the energy source in isolation.

2014 IPCC, Global warming potential of selected electricity sources

Life cycle CO2 equivalent (including albedo effect) from selected electricity supply technologies.[2][3] Arranged by decreasing median (gCO
eq/kWh) values.
Technology Min. Median Max.
Currently commercially available technologies
CoalPC 740 820 910
Gas – combined cycle 410 490 650
Biomass – Dedicated 130 230 420
Solar PV – Utility scale 18 48 180
Solar PV – rooftop 26 41 60
Geothermal 6.0 38 79
Concentrated solar power 8.8 27 63
Hydropower 1.0 24 22001
Wind Offshore 8.0 12 35
Nuclear 3.7 12 110
Wind Onshore 7.0 11 56
Pre‐commercial technologies
Ocean (Tidal and wave) 5.6 17 28

1 see also environmental impact of reservoirs#Greenhouse gases.

Sample life-cycle breakdown

The following chart shows breakdown of a real-world Vattenfall nuclear power plant in Sweden based on their Environmental Product Declaration.[4] Life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from Vattenfall Nordic Nuclear Power Plants

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage

(As of 2020) whether bio-energy with carbon capture and storage can be carbon neutral or carbon negative is being researched and is controversial.[5]

Studies after the latest IPCC report

Individual studies show a wide range of estimates for fuel sources arising from the different methodologies used. Those on the low end tend to leave parts of the life cycle out of their analysis, while those on the high end often make unrealistic assumptions about the amount of energy used in some parts of the life cycle.[6]

Turkey has approved building Afşin-Elbistan C,[7] which at over 5400 gCO2eq/kWh would be far less carbon efficient than anything on this list.[note 1]

Since the 2014 IPCC study some geothermal has been found to emit CO2 such as some geothermal power in Turkey: further research is ongoing in the 2020s.

Ocean energy technologies (tidal and wave) are relatively new, and few studies have been conducted on them. A major issue of the available studies is that they seem to underestimate the impacts of maintenance, which could be significant. An assessment of around 180 ocean technologies found that the GWP of ocean technologies varies between 15 and 105 gCO2eq/kWh, with an average of 53 gCO2eq/kWh.[9] In another study, the environmental impact of tidal current technologies was studied, where the GWP varied between 15 and 37, with a median value of 23.8gCO2eq/kWh),[10] which is slightly higher than that reported in the 2014 IPCC GWP study mentioned earlier (5.6 to 28, with a mean value of 17 gCO2eq/kWh).

Cutoff points of calculations and estimates of how long plants last

Wind farms are estimated to last 30 years:[11] after that the carbon emissions from repowering would need to be taken into account. Solar panels from the 2010s may have a similar lifetime: however how long 2020s solar panels (such as perovskite) will last is not yet known.[12] Some nuclear plants can used for 80 years,[13] but others may have to be retired earlier for safety reasons.[14] (As of 2020) more than half the world's nuclear plants are expected to request license extensions,[15] and there have been calls for these extensions to be better scrutinized under the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context.[16] Some coal-fired power stations may operate for 50 years but others may be shutdown after 20 years,[17] or less.[18]

Natural gas bridge fuel controversy

(As of 2020) whether natural gas should be used as a "bridge" from coal and oil to low carbon energy, is being debated for economies still burning lots of coal, such as India and China.[19]

Missing life cycle phases

Although the life cycle assessments of each energy source should attempt to cover the full life cycle of the source from cradle-to-grave, they are generally limited to the construction and operation phase. The most rigorously studied phases are those of material and fuel mining, construction, operation, and waste management. However, missing life cycle phases[20] exist for a number of energy sources. At times, assessments variably and sometimes inconsistently include the global warming potential that results from decommissioning the energy supplying facility, once it has reached its designed life-span. This includes the global warming potential of the process to return the power-supply site to greenfield status. For example, the process of hydroelectric dam removal is usually excluded as it is a rare practice with little practical data available. Dam removal however may become increasingly common as dams age. An example of this is the decommissioning of the Bull Run Hydroelectric Project, which was the largest concrete dam ever removed in the United States as of 2012.[21] Larger dams, such as the Hoover Dam and the Three Gorges Dam, are intended to last "forever" with the aid of maintenance, a period that is not quantified.[22] Therefore, decommissioning estimates are generally omitted for some energy sources, while other energy sources include a decommissioning phase in their assessments.

Along with the other prominent values of the paper, the median value presented of 12 g CO
-eq/kWhe for nuclear fission, found in the 2012 Yale University nuclear power review, a paper which also serves as the origin of the 2014 IPCC's nuclear value,[23] does however include the contribution of facility decommissioning with an "Added facility decommissioning" global warming potential in the full nuclear life cycle assessment.[20]

Thermal power plants, even if low carbon power biomass, nuclear or geothermal energy stations, directly add heat energy to the earth's global energy balance. As for wind turbines, they may change both horizontal and vertical atmospheric circulation.[24] But, although both these may slightly change the local temperature, any difference they might make to the global temperature is undetectable against the far larger temperature change caused by greenhouse gases.[25]

See also


  1. By routine calculation 61,636,279.98 tCO2/year[8] divided by 11380 GWh/year[7] equals 61,636.27998 Gg CO2 divided by 11,380 GWh equals 5.4 kg CO2/kWh not even counting construction cement



  1. Nuclear Power Results – Life Cycle Assessment Harmonization , NREL Laboratory, Alliance For Sustainable Energy LLC website, U.S. Department Of Energy, last updated: 24 January 2013.
  2. "IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex III: Technology - specific cost and performance parameters - Table A.III.2 (Emissions of selected electricity supply technologies (gCO 2eq/kWh))". IPCC. 2014. p. 1335. Retrieved 14 December 2018. 
  3. "IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex II Metrics and Methodology - A.II.9.3 (Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions)". pp. 1306–1308. 
  4. "EPD Search - The International EPD® System" (in en). 
  5. "Report: UK Government's net-zero plans 'over-reliant' on biomass and carbon capture" (in en). 
  6. Kleiner, Kurt (September 2008). "Nuclear energy: assessing the emissions". Nature 1 (810): 130–131. doi:10.1038/climate.2008.99. Retrieved 18 May 2010. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 "EÜAŞ 1800 MW’lık Afşin C Termik Santrali için çalışmalara başlıyor" (in tr). 27 February 2020. 
  8. Çınar (2020), p. 319.
  9. Uihlein, Andreas (2016). "Life cycle assessment of ocean energy technologies". The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 21 (10): 1425–1437. doi:10.1007/s11367-016-1120-y. 
  10. Kaddoura, Mohamad; Tivander, Johan; Molander, Sverker (2020). "life cycle assessment of electricity generation from an array of subsea tidal kite prototypes". Energies 13 (2): 456. doi:10.3390/en13020456. 
  11. "WindEconomics: Extending lifetimes lowers nuclear costs". 
  12. Belton, Padraig (1 May 2020). "A breakthrough approaches for solar power" (in en-GB). BBC News. 
  13. "What's the Lifespan for a Nuclear Reactor? Much Longer Than You Might Think". 
  14. "Nuclear plant lifetime extension: A creeping catastrophe" (in en-US). 2020-03-30. 
  15. "Planning for long-term nuclear plant operations - Nuclear Engineering International". 
  16. "Nuclear plant lifetime extension: A creeping catastrophe" (in en-US). 2020-03-30. 
  17. Cui, Ryna Yiyun; Hultman, Nathan; Edwards, Morgan R.; He, Linlang; Sen, Arijit; Surana, Kavita; McJeon, Haewon; Iyer, Gokul et al. (2019-10-18). "Quantifying operational lifetimes for coal power plants under the Paris goals" (in en). Nature Communications 10 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12618-3. ISSN 2041-1723. 
  18. Welle (, Deutsche. "Climate activists protest Germany's new Datteln 4 coal power plant | DW | 30.05.2020" (in en-GB). 
  19. Al-Kuwari, Omran (10 April 2020). "Unexpected opportunity for natural gas" (in en-US). 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Warner, Ethan S.; Heath, Garvin A. (2012). "Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation: Systematic Review and Harmonization". Journal of Industrial Ecology 16: S73–S92. doi:10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00472.x. 
  21. McOmie, Grant (11 April 2005). "2 the Outdoors - Marmot Dam Comes Down Soon". KATU news. Archived from the original on 16 April 2005. Retrieved 11 June 2008. "When the dam removal begins it will be the largest concrete dam in America to come down." 
  22. How long are dams like Hoover Dam engineered to last? What's the largest dam ever to fail?. (11 August 2006). Retrieved on 2013-02-19.
  23. pg 40
  24. Borenstein, Seth (5 October 2018). "Harvard study says wind power can also cause some warming". Science. 
  25. "Ch 24 Page 170: Sustainable Energy - without the hot air | David MacKay". Retrieved 17 August 2017. 

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