Christmas in March? I Want Coal Year Around

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We’ve all watched a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and a few of us have seen Tokyo Godfathers. But as we start the count down to the seasons (yes, lots of people begin the count down to the next one as soon as the previous one is over and some of us have already begun our Christmas shopping), I am left wondering why “naughty” children get coal for Christmas.

After all coal is a useful thing.

The Sicilian tradition tracks back to pre-Christian Italy. There, La Befana, an old woman, would go around and leave light and fluffy candy for “nice” children and pieces of a dark candy or coal for the “naughty” ones (Note: Most of the history of the legend is shrouded in the mist of time. Other places such as Holland have also claimed to have begun the ritual).

Coal has many more uses than being given to “naughty” children. In America it is mostly used to create electricity. You may ask yourself, “how do they produce electricity with a darkly colored piece of rock?” Good Question!! Here is how.

 Anthracite Coal

Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock that is made from decayed plant matter that accumulated at the bottom of bodies of water, such as ponds or swamps. Coal takes millions of years to form, so while there will be a little more available in the future neither I nor my 10^2,000,000 grandchild will be able to use it (her name will be Carol, by the way).

There are four main types of coal. Anthracite coal is around 90% carbon. Of the coals, it burns the hottest, but only makes up about half of a percent of the coal used. Bituminous coal makes up 50% of the coal production in the United States and is used to turn turbines to make electricity. Sub-bituminous coal accounts for about 46% of coal production, but does not produce as much heat as Bituminous. Lignite is the youngest of the coal and holds the least carbon. There are other types of coal and coal related rocks. Graphite is a coal, but its ignition point is so high, it is rarely used as fuel. Coal and diamonds are both carbon products, but it would take a Superman to make coal into diamonds while you watch.

Coal has been used for 6,000 years. Its first use was as jewelry in China. The Romans used it as a heating source. Coal is best known as being the fuel supply for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Tagebau Garzweiler
Surface Coal Mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Coal is usually found underground. Most coal mines in the United States are surface mined. A surface mine is where you remove the surface and dig a large open air pit to get to a deposit – in this case coal.

In the present day, coal is mainly used to produce electricity. About 40% of the world’s electricity and 50% of the United States’ electricity come from coal.

How does coal produce electricity? The coal is burned for its heat. The heat is used to turn water into steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine, which produces the electricity.

So how efficient is coal at producing energy? A kilogram of coal produces about 2 kilowatt hours of electricity. It would take about 1 ton of coal to run a 100 watt light bulb for a year. (Natural Gas produces about 3.1 kilowatt hours per kilogram.)

It could make a light that yonder window breaks.

4th of July Party at Sara's and Steffen's Place
Creative Commons License photo credit: ReneS

Coal when burned emits a lot of undesirable emissions. 2000 pounds (1 ton that is used to keep a light bulb on for a year) of coal will produce about 5,720 pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning coal also produce sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful gases. Particulate matter, also know as fly ash, is left over as well.

So why would we use coal?

We use it here in America, because America has the largest coal reserves. It is somewhat easy to mine and does not require a lot of refining to make it a usable fuel. Also coal remains a cheap way to produce electricity.

America is no longer the largest user of coal. China surpassed America in coal consumption in 2008.

Over the years the coal industry has developed ways to capture the harmful gases. Scrubbers remove the sulfur before it can become sulfur dioxide and catalytic converters take out the nitrogen. The particulate matter is now collected and sold to different companies which include cement makers, embankment producers, and many others. They are also creating ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. The captured carbon dioxide can be used for many different things including improved oil recovery and even conversion into fuel.

The use of coal in electricity production is projected to rise over time. It will rise mainly because the need for energy will rise. Energy consumption will continue to rise with population growth and industrial development.

Here Comes the Sun

I had the chance to go talk with a wonderful and smart bunch of 5th graders at Oran M. Roberts Elementary School about solar energy. I have been interested in solar energy for over two decades now. It started as a cub scout; we built small solar powered cars, which were made from a 1 foot square piece of plywood with four wheels and a small motor attached to a small solar cell. It only worked in clear and direct sunlight and went very slowly, but solar power has improved a lot over the last 20 years!

So what is solar energy? It’s everything – all energy comes from the sun or other stars. Fossil fuels come from microorganisms that used the sun for energy and now we use the solar energy they stored. Wind comes from the sun. The sun heats part of the earth, creating the wind.

Solar energy even helped create the heat at the core of the Earth. After the death of a few stars, the Solar System started to form. The planetary nebula helped create a little blue green planet with an iron nickel liquid core. That core and its rotation create what we know as geothermal power.

People have been using solar power for years without even realizing it. Every time you turn off the light in a room and use the natural light coming into the room to read, you’re using solar power. When you go out in the sun to get warm, that’s solar power too.

But the type of power we’re going to talk about is the type used to make electricity, whether directly (such as photovoltaic cells) or indirectly (solar thermal arrays).

To put it all in perspective:

daniel graph 1

The graphs above show the energy use in the USA in 2008.

Coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy are mostly used for electricity.

Petroleum is used mostly for transportation. Renewable energy only make up 7% of our energy and solar energy only 1% of that.

daniel graph 2

Solar power is mostly used for residential and commercial power and not for transportation or large-scale electrical generation.

daniel graph 3

Over the next 20 years, solar is projected to grow.

What are the advantages of solar energy?  Well after you get the solar cells installed, you don’t have to pay for the energy. Also, collecting solar power produces no pollution. You can put solar cells on nearly everything, and it can work anywhere there is sunlight, which can be great if it is somewhere far off the grid, or you don’t want to spend the resources to attach it to the grid.

However there are some disadvantages to solar. The largest one is that solar power is dependent on the sun. This means that solar panels cannot generate electricity when it is dark. That’s 12 hours or so a day that the solar panels can’t work. Weather also effects solar power. It may not work if it’s cloudy or rainy outside. Also, the land cost for large solar power generation stations are large. Solar 2, a large scale solar thermal power station out in the Mojave Desert, used 891,000 ft² of land to produce up to 10 megawatts of power.

Currently electricity produced by solar plants is more expensive than most other sources.

Types of solar collectors:

Concentrated (Dish) solar – the panels are made into a parabolic shape to concentrate the light collected into a sensor.

Flat Photovoltaic cells – these are what most people think about when they think of solar power. These cells are what you usually see connected to street signs or on top of buildings. They use their surface area to collect light instead of concentrating it into one sensor.

Stay tuned next week for when I reveal the exciting Q and A from the students at Oran Roberts. I’ll tackle such questions as “Does solar power work on other planets?” and “What countries outside the USA use solar power?”

So be here next week,  same bat time; same bat channel.

Texas Wins Big: NEED State Program of the Year

NEED – the National Energy Education Development Project – is an organization that teaches people how to teach about energy. Even though the concept of energy education might sound simple at first – too many people think that if they teach about one energy source, they’re teaching about energy in general.

In the NEED Primary Science of Energy curriculum, they discuss petroleum, coal, solar energy, uranium, biomass, hydropower, wind energy, geothermal energy, propane, natural gas and light.

Texas was selected as NEED’s State Program of the Year because of the diverse and dedicated partners providing energy education opportunities to students, teacher, and families in Texas.

HMNS, along with other Texas partners, was recognized at the 29th Annual Youth Awards for Energy Achievement for the Museum’s commitment to NEED and the programs in Texas, as well as our commitment to energy education in general.

Niagara Falls Hydro Plant
Hydropower
Creative Commons License photo credit: gobanshee1

But it’s not just about giving the teachers facts and figures. The fastest way for teachers to get students excited is to get the teachers excited –  and NEED activities do just that.

Before receiving the award, we completed a test run of their new hydropower curriculum. I spent a few hours with elementary school teachers and kids, putting together a water-powered wheel that would lift paperclips.  The exciting part was watching the kids come up with ideas and innovations to make the water-powered wheels run more efficiently and do more work.

To learn more about energy education, check out our previous entries in the blog’s Energy category.

Measure for Measure…How much energy is there?

How much energy is there?  How much is the world using? You can spend hours and hours investigating the finer points of that topic—and plenty of people spend their whole lives on it. Does that sound like fun, or what? Before you jump in, a few basics are in order.

back alley
Creative Commons License photo credit: tvol

A barrel is 42 gallons of oil. Although the actual familiar steel drum is used less and less these days, the somewhat arbitrary 42 gallons remains the worldwide definition of a barrel.

Natural gas is normally measured in cubic feet. Because the volume of a gas changes based on its pressure and temperature, different groups have different standard conditions, resulting in slightly different amounts of natural gas per cubic foot.
 
To get some kind of grand total that makes any sense, we need a standardized unit of measurement for gases, liquids and all other forms of energy. Since all forms of energy can be converted to heat, one approach is to use heat as the basis for measuring energy.  We can measure that heat in British Thermal Units, or BTU. One BTU is the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit, which happens to be just about equal to the energy of a burning match.

When we are trying to measure huge quantities of energy on a global level, we can convert everything (barrels of oil, cubic feet of natural gas) to BTU, resulting in amounts that are in the thousands of trillions of BTU—or quadrillions—10 raised to the 15th exponential power, which is a 1 with 15 zeros after it (1,000,000,000,000,000). To simplify things, we refer to one quadrillion BTU as a “quad.”

But sometimes people measure energy in kilowatt-hours (as on your electric bill), or maybe in joules. The conversions for those are as follows:

1 kilowatt-hour = 3,412 BTU = 3,600,000 joules

(Thus, as you can see, a BTU is roughly about 1,000 joules.)

Taladro-H104-OilDriller
Creative Commons License photo credit: nestor galina

There are plenty of statistical mavens who prefer to use the “oil-equivalent” approach, which converts everything to the equivalent of almighty oil, either in “barrels oil equivalent” (BOE), or tonnes (the metric ones) oil equivalent (TOE). As in the previous examples, the numbers being compared are generally quite large, so we usually see MBOE or MTOE, the “M” signifying millions.

1 MTOE =  0.0397 quad = 6.75 MBOE

Practically all your quantitative conversionary questions can be answered at this handy site, which can calculate between just about any units you can imagine:

In 2005, the world consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 x 1018 joules, or about 474 quads, or 139 x 1012 kilowatt-hours of energy from all sources. About 80% of that amount came from fossil fuels, with the rest from nuclear energy, alternative fuels and renewables. BP releases a nifty little study on the state of global energy every year.

The remaining recoverable fossil fuel energy worldwide is estimated by “Wikipedia sources” at about 379,000 quads (huge amounts of energy are locked in “unconventional” sources such as gas hydrates).

In The Sun
Creative Commons License photo credit: krisdecurtis

Another 2.37 million quads from uranium (nuclear power) remain. Both these sums are dwarfed by just one year of the total amount of solar energy that hits the earth, a whopping 3.6 million quads annually.  However you want to measure it, there’s a LOT of energy out there

…or then again, maybe the whole universe could have a sum total of no energy at all .

Chew on that for a little bit and get back to me.