Calculating your carbon emissions from electricity use

December 16, 2021
Article

Why you should track this scope 2 emission.

AT A GLANCE

Calculating your carbon footprint from your purchased electricity

What to include: Electricity your organization uses for its general operations.

Why measure: The first step is to understand your electricity use and its associated GHG emissions. After you know how much you use, you’ll better understand what reduction strategies are most effective for you.

Emissions scope: Scope 2

How often: Monthly, unless you depend heavily on electricity use (for example, if you’re in commercial real estate management or operate a data center).

What to do next: Start measuring using our carbon calculator tool. Then, integrate renewable energy sources into your energy mix and strategies to improve the energy efficiency of powered equipment.


Did you know that, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings account for over 76% of electricity use? (And only about 20% of electricity comes from renewable sources, a big issue when it comes to climate change.) It tends to be an obvious starting point when calculating your greenhouse gas emissions because electricity is relatively easy to measure—and just about everyone uses it.

Use our carbon calculator to calculate emissions from your electricity

Plus, it includes a full suite of other carbon calculators to measure and manage your GHG emissions.

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But why would you measure your energy use? It helps you set efficiency targets, cut costs, and reduce your impact on the environment, for starters. One level deeper, measuring how much electricity your organization uses helps you spot trends and identify equipment that consumes large amounts of energy so you can make environmentally friendly adjustments.

Electricity produces varying degrees of greenhouse gas emissions

Unless your business is completely off the grid or uses 100% renewable energy (kudos if you do!), you indirectly create GHG emissions from electricity generation. But the amount of emissions depends on more than just how much energy you use. It also comes down to how your electricity is produced and distributed from the power plant, meaning the breakdown of fuel types your utility provider uses to make electricity. Most electricity in the U.S. (63%) is made from a mix of fossil fuels like natural gas, petroleum, and coal, followed by nuclear (20%), with some sources supplemented with renewables like wind, solar, or hydro. The more your electricity provider relies on fossil fuel combustion to generate electricity, the more indirect emissions you create.

What emissions scope is purchased electricity?

If you’re going to measure your electricity emissions, you should know what emissions scope it falls under. Why? Because emissions scopes help you understand your emitting behaviors and your level of control over these sources.

Purchased electricity is scope 2, meaning it’s an indirect emission because while you buy the electricity, it’s produced elsewhere, where you have limited control over the mix of fuel consumption. Think of these as indirect emissions you create by figuratively (and literally) keeping the lights on. Your purchased electricity also powers some not-so-obvious stuff like your building’s central air or cooling systems, heaters, machinery, computers, on-site servers, other office equipment, and so much more. While you can reduce your consumption and associated emissions with intentional behavior changes like using efficient equipment and appliances or opting for natural daylight instead of electric lighting, the actual generation of the electricity is outside of your direct control.  

Don’t know about emissions scopes ? Check out our emissions scope explainer and video.

What is needed to calculate electricity emissions?

Electricity generally gets reported in kilowatt-hours (kWh) or multiples of kWh and you can calculate your emissions data from kWh pretty easily, but more on that in a moment. You can generally get your electricity usage from your monthly bills, whether you access your account online or still receive paper bills. Many electricity companies offer a detailed view of daily usage, too.  

Discover how much electricity you use

Find out if your organization buys electricity directly, or if a property owner or manager buys your electricity, ask them for the data. If you’re in a multi-tenant building, find out if your space is sub-metered. As a last resort, ask if your building can provide a pro-rata share of your energy consumption, inclusive of your share of common areas like cafeterias, fitness facilities, and corridors. Don’t forget to think about each property at your organization—offices, manufacturing sites, retail spaces, warehouses, storage facilities, parking lots, and so on.

You’ll generally want to calculate your emissions monthly for tracking purposes unless your business depends heavily on electricity use (e.g., commercial real estate management, data center operation).  

How to automatically calculate CO2 emissions from your electricity consumption:

1. Gather your monthly energy bills or access your online account and locate your usage in kWh. If you can’t get your kWh, don’t sweat it, we can estimate your emissions based on national averages and your facility type, square footage, and ZIP Code.

Energy bill showing where to find your kWh usage

2. Sign in to Sustain.Life and navigate to the purchased electricity emissions calculator.

Sustain.Life’s automatic carbon calculator for electricity use

3. Enter your total electricity use in kWh, and if you have any on-site renewable energy systems like solar, you’ll be able to enter those too.

4. That’s it, Sustain.Life automatically calculates your carbon footprint in metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

What’s next?

After measuring your purchased electricity, it’s time to start thinking about reduction strategies. You’ll want to look for equipment that you can power down when not in use—think computers and other office equipment that pull phantom power—and other efficiency upgrades like switching to ENERGY STAR-rated equipment.  

Beyond that, you can purchase off-site renewable energy or renewable energy certificates (RECs) and start laying the groundwork to see if on-site renewable energy systems are a possibility for you.  

And if you need help doing any of those, Sustain.Life’s Full Sustainability Platform includes over 100 step-by-step guides to help reduce your company’s emissions.

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The takeaway

• The more your electricity provider relies on fossil fuels to generate electricity, the more indirect emissions you create. 

• Purchased electricity is scope 2, meaning it’s an indirect emission because while you buy the electricity, it’s produced elsewhere, where you have limited control over the mix of fuel consumption.