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Let's Talk About An Actual Energy Policy

 April 01, 2011 02:16 PM


Ok, if you've listened to Pickens and the Ratigan show, you know that they seem to think that we can fix things with natural gas and perhaps with some renewables.

That will never work.  Nor will drilling here - we can replace some of our demand, but not all of it.  Further, the amount of oil we have is finite.

Indeed, all of the various energy resources are finite.  Even The Sun is finite.  It will eventually run out of fuel and "die."  It just won't happen for a very, very long time.

We have about ten years of natural gas supplies in proved reserves at present rates of consumption.  But "growth" is a nasty thing; it's a compound function, and I discuss this often - compound functions cause trouble, and usually quickly.

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Pickens wants to move trucks (at minimum) to natural gas.  Nice sentiment.  But he's talking his book and pushing something that, if we double our consumption - and if we replaced gasoline and diesel we would - the "solution" would only last five years, make him filthy rich, and still leave us screwed.

There has to be a better way.  We need a solution that will last at least fifty years.

What if I told you that there is one?

It's coal.

But not how you think of coal.

We think of coal as going into a power plant that makes electricity.  But that's wasteful, believe it or not.

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See, coal contains about 13x as much energy in Thorium as it does in fuel (burning) content.  We currently throw this away.  Thorium is a fertile material - that means that when struck by neutrons in a nuclear reactor it turns into something that will fission

Here's the math.

1 lb of gasoline contains about 2.2 x 10^7 Joules of energy.
1 lb of coal contains about 1.6 x 10^7 Joules of energy.

These are reasonably-comparable; another way to look at this is that you need about 137% of coal (in pounds) as you do in gasoline for the same energy content.

We currently consume 378 million gallons of gasoline a day.  At 6lbs/gallon (approximately) this is 2,268 million pounds.  Reduced to short tons (2,000 lbs) this is 1.134 million short tons of gasoline/day, or 414 million short tons a year.  Converted to coal, this is 579 short tons.

The most-current value I can find for distillate (diesel fuel) is 3.794 million barrels a day.  At 42 gallons to the barrel, this is 159 million gallons of diesel fuel.  Diesel contains about 20% more BTUs per gallon than gasoline, but is about 17% heavier at 7lbs/gallon, so if we convert simply based on weight we get close.  So we have 1,113 million pounds of diesel daily; reduced to short tons that's 0.557 million short tons of diesel daily, or 203 million short tons a year.  Converted to coal, this is 284 million short tons.

Add these two and we get 863 million short tons a year of coal equivalent.

Why is this important?

Because according to the EIA, again, we consume about 1,073 million short tons of coal a year, virtually all of it being burned to produce electrical power.

How much coal do we have?  According to the EIA the total reserve base - the reasonable commercially recoverable coal, is about 489 billion short tons.  That's roughly four hundred years worth of supply at current rates of use.  If we assume our population will grow at about 1% a year and per-capita energy use remains roughly constant, we should have enough coal to last at least 200 years.

Now stay with me a minute.

Remember, we consume less than that amount in coal-equivalent between both gasoline and diesel.


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