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Regional disparities in emissions reduction and net trade from renewables


Operational constraints of the power system and inter-regional trade of electricity make it challenging to predetermine the reduction in emissions from the integration of solar and wind power. Using spatially resolved historical data for solar and wind generation, fossil fuel-based generation, emissions and exports, we isolate the impacts of renewable integration for multiple regions spanning the United States. Here we show regional differences for the reduction of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions, with a wider range of outcomes for regional wind power. Given the heterogeneity in transmission infrastructure, some regions have limited capacity to increase electricity exports to neighbouring regions. For both solar and wind generation, we identify the regions that retain nearly all of the emissions reductions locally and those that increase net exports, reducing emissions in neighbouring regions. Our results show lower rates of emissions mitigation than previous studies that relied on less-contemporary data or utilized simulated renewable generation. These differences may reflect the longer-term trends in power-sector emissions reductions and the importance of utilizing observed renewable generation data.

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Fig. 1: The impact of 1 MWh of solar generation and wind generation on the CO2, SO2 and NOx emissions within that region.
Fig. 2: The impact of solar generation and wind generation on coal, natural gas and hydropower generation within that region.
Fig. 3: Increase in regional net exports from solar generation and wind generation, given in MWh increase in net export per MWh of solar or wind generation.
Fig. 4: Emissions impacts in neighbouring regions within the interconnection due to increasing net exports from local solar or wind.
Fig. 5: Cross-study comparison of offset emissions from solar and wind power.

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are available in a GitHub repository:

Code availability

The code developed during the current study is available in a GitHub repository:


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We acknowledge B. Copeland for her invaluable support in data collection and management, as well as the North Carolina State University Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program for Sustainable Energy Systems and Policy and the Department of Civil, Construction & Environmental Engineering Research Experience for Undergraduate program.

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H.F. constructed the model. Both authors conceived the study, analysed the results and wrote and reviewed the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jeremiah X. Johnson.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Jonathan Buonocore, Kyle Siler-Evans and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2 and Tables 1–41.

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Fell, H., Johnson, J.X. Regional disparities in emissions reduction and net trade from renewables. Nat Sustain 4, 358–365 (2021).

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