Life Cycle Assessment and Grid Electricity

What Do We Know and What Can We Know?

Published in: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 44, no. 6, 2010, p. 1895-1901

by C. M. Weber, Paulina Jaramillo, Joe Marriott, Constantine Samaras

Read More

Access further information on this document at

This article was published outside of RAND. The full text of the article can be found at the link above.

The generation and distribution of electricity comprises nearly 40% of U.S. CO2 emissions, as well as large shares of SO2, NOx, small particulates, and other toxins. Thus, correctly accounting for these electricity-related environmental releases is of great importance in life cycle assessment of products and processes. Unfortunately, there is no agreed-upon protocol for accounting for the environmental emissions associated with electricity, as well as significant uncertainty in the estimates. Here, we explore the limits of current knowledge about grid electricity in LCA and carbon footprinting for the U.S. electrical grid, and show that differences in standards, protocols, and reporting organizations can lead to important differences in estimates of CO2, SO2, and NOx emissions factors. We find a considerable divergence in published values for grid emissions factor in the U.S. We discuss the implications of this divergence and list recommendations for a standardized approach to accounting for air pollution emissions in life cycle assessment and policy analyses in a world with incomplete and uncertain information.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation External publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.