At the same time, significant disparities that existed previously between NOAA’s estimates, which are based on atmospheric measurements, and EPA’s estimates, which are based on a combination of reported emissions and industrial activity, have narrowed following the establishment of the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The findings, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, also suggest how additional emissions reductions might be achieved.
SF6 is most commonly used as an electrical insulator in high-voltage equipment that transmits and distributes electricity, and its emissions have been increasing worldwide as electric power systems expand. Smaller amounts of SF6 are used in semiconductor manufacturing and in magnesium production.
SF6 traps 25,000 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time scale for equal amounts of emissions. That means a relatively small amount of the gas can have a significant impact on climate warming. Because of its extremely large global warming potential and long atmospheric lifetime, SF6 emissions will influence Earth’s climate for thousands of years.
In this study, researchers from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, working with colleagues at EPA, CIRES, and the University of Maryland, estimated U.S. SF6 emissions for the first time from atmospheric measurements collected at a network of tall towers and aircraft in NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. The researchers provided an estimate of SF6 emissions independent from the EPA’s estimate, which is based on reported SF6 emissions for some industrial facilities and on estimated SF6 emissions for others.
“We observed differences between our atmospheric estimates and the EPA’s activity-based estimates,” said study lead author Lei Hu, a Global Monitoring Laboratory researcher who was a CIRES scientist at the time of the study. “But by closely collaborating with the EPA, we were able to identify processes potentially responsible for a significant portion of this difference, highlighting ways to improve emission inventories and suggesting additional emission mitigation opportunities in the future.”
In the 1990s, the EPA launched voluntary partnerships with the electric power, magnesium, and semiconductor industries to reduce SF6 emissions after the United States recognized that its emissions were significant. In 2011, large SF6 -emitting facilities were required to begin tracking and reporting their emissions under the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.
Hu and her colleagues documented a decline of about 60 percent in U.S. SF6 emissions between 2007-2018—equivalent to a reduction of between 6 and 20 million metric tons of CO2 emissions during that time period—likely due in part to the voluntary emission reduction partnerships and the EPA reporting requirement. A more modest declining trend has also been reported in the EPA’s national inventories submitted annually under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Examining the differences between the NOAA and EPA independent estimates, the researchers found that the EPA’s past inventory analyses likely underestimated SF6 emissions from electrical power transmission and distribution facilities, and from a single SF6 production plant in Illinois. According to Hu, the research collaboration has likely improved the accuracy of the EPA inventories. The 2023 draft of the EPA’s U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2021 used the results of this study to support revisions to its estimates of SF6 emissions from electrical transmission and distribution.
The collaboration may also lead to improvements in the atmosphere-based estimates, helping NOAA identify how to expand or rework its network to better capture emitting industries or areas with significant emissions, according to Steve Montzka, senior scientist at GML and one of the paper’s authors.
Hu and her colleagues also found a seasonal variation in SF6 emissions from the atmosphere-based analysis, with higher emissions in winter than in summer. Industry representatives identified increased servicing of electrical power equipment in the southern states and leakage from aging brittle sealing materials in the equipment in northern states during winter as likely explanations for the enhanced wintertime emissions—findings that suggest opportunities for further emissions reductions.
“This is a great example of the future of greenhouse gas emission tracking, where inventory compilers and atmospheric scientists work together to better understand emissions and shed light on ways to further reduce them,” said Montzka.