The Costs of Fixing Climate Change

I has been my experience that colleagues who do not subscribe to climate change will frequently modify their position in conversation.  They may, in fact believe that the climate is changing, and they may also believe that man is a (if not the) driving force of this change.

But they will then acknowledge that the cost of cutting carbon emissions would be ruinous to the economy.  In other words, their objection to climate change is ultimately a financial objection, not a philosophical objection.  And indeed, common knowledge is that converting from fossil fuels to “renewable” energy sources will be extremely, perhaps unbearably, painful from a cost perspective.

So it was with some surprise that I ran across this article in today’s New York Times, discussing a report claiming that by some accountings that take into consideration the “externalities” associated with fossil fuel combustion – such as improved health outcomes due to reduced pollution, and reduced energy costs driven by reduced scarcity – the cost to covert to renewables might be surprisingly low.  Perhaps even zero.

I recommend that you read the column here:

(My apologies if this is blocked by a pay wall.  Am not sure on Times’ content policy.)

The report being discussed was assembled by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.  Unfortunately I cannot link to their site right now,  but here is a description of the Commission, as well as a link to their site.

If nothing else, this is an unambiguously upbeat message, and it is important that it directly addresses some of the “common knowledge” that certain constituencies use to avoid grappling with the significant issues that may arise if we refuse to address our dumping of carbon dioxide into the air.

And as I have said elsewhere, even if one sincerely does not believe that carbon dioxide causes atmospheric climate change, there is unambiguous data demonstrating that it causes ocean acidification that is already affecting ocean life.  In other words, there is no logical reason to dismiss the need to examine our use of fossil fuels, and there are reasons to hope that the report discussed in this column is at least approximately correct in it’s optimistic outlook.



EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory

A really interesting document prepared by EPA is listed here:

It contains great information about sources and sinks of heat trapping gases.  It also includes very useful tables such as this:

GWP Table

Pretty great, right?  One thing that jumps out is that methane (CH4) has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

One can sometimes forget about all the great research and reporting work that the Federal Government does and makes available to its citizens, especially when the haters get going.  But when it comes to matters of energy, energy utilization and emissions, there is a wealth of useful and contextualizing information right at your fingertips thanks to Uncle Sam.

It may sound goofy, but this display of competence and professionalism makes me feel pretty proud about our Government.  But enough about politics.  Take a look at this report if you have a few minutes.  It’s worth a quick scan if nothing else.

Power Plants

I was reading the comments following a column in a Very Famous Newspaper and came across a good comment about how conservation is preferable to fossil fuel extraction.  However, the commenter attempted to figure out how much natural gas would be needed to supplant the coal we currently use for electrical generation, and things kind of off track, but got me wondering what the answer was and what the ramifications were.

Some background:

Using rough numbers, power plants are approximately 33% efficient.  In other words, to deliver 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity to your house, the plant must burn 3 kilowatt-hour’s worth of fuel.  Basically, 2/3 of the heat just goes up the stack and vanishes, while 1/3 of the energy actual does the work to turn a generator and produce electricity.

You might think that capturing some of that stack heat would make sense, and you would be right.  Stack heat economizers allow plants to pre-heat the incoming combustion air and boiler make-up water, which can  give them a percent or two higher efficiency.

Far more effective, and far more common overseas, is to take the stack heat and use it to provide district heating to nearby homes and businesses, generally by heating water and pumping around the district with below-grade piping.  However, in the U.S., power plants are often at a good remove from facilities that might be able to use their waste heat, so district heating, while not exactly rare, is not exactly common, either.

Anyway, I did a bit of Googling and it looks like we generate about 2 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity with coal every year.  That’s a lot of kilowatt-hours: 2,000,000,000,000 if you like to look at big numbers.

Actually, if you consider that there are about 350,000,000 people in the U.S. that’s 5,700 kWh per per year for every man, woman and child in the country.  Which is amazing.

According to the Energy Information Agency (a GREAT resource, by the way), the average energy content of coal is about 19,583,000 Btu per ton, or 9,792 Btu per pound.  I was surprised it was this low, but our average coal quality may not be that good.  In any event, we can approximate how much coal was burned pretty easily:

(2,000,000,000,000 kWh * 3,412 Btu-per-kWh) / (33% efficient * 19,583,000 Btu-per-Ton) = 1,056,000,000 tons of coal.

Man, that’s a lot of coal.  A billion tons!  And remember from our earlier posts, coal is mostly carbon by weight, and CO2 weights 3.7 times more than carbon.  So we’re talking of carbon emissions in the neighborhood of 3+ billions of tons of CO2 that enters the atmosphere each year from electrical generation.

I see that coal prices vary quite a bit from region to region, but if we use $50/ton as an average price, that means fuel for coal fired generation costs about $50 billion dollars annually.

Natural gas is generally measured in units of volume (normally 100’s of cubic feet [or CCF]) or in units of energy (Therms at 100,000 Btu, or Decatherms at 1,000,000 Btu.  Gas is purchased in bulk in unit of Decatherms, but most customer bills are in therms or CCF.)  Fortunately for us,  the energy content of a CCF of natural gas is about the same as a Therm, so they can  be used more or less interchangeably without introducing undue error.  Also, from the above we see that a cubic foot of gas is about 1,000 Btu and that a decatherm is equivalent to about 1,000 cubic feet.

We can now readily calculate how much natural gas would be required to supplant coal at our power plants:

(19,583,000 Btu-per-ton-coal * 1,056,000,000 tons/year) / 1,000,000 Btu-per-Decatherm = 20,679,648,000 DTh.

That’s a hell of a lot of natural gas.  By the way, delivered gas might cost $5 a DTh.  So the cost for this much natural gas would be about $100 billion dollars.  Each year!  Note that this is roughly twice the cost of coal for the same electrical generation – there’s one reason why coal is a hard habit to quit.

Now, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports natural gas production in millions of cubic feet, so I am going to do a rough conversion by multiplying our Dth number by 1,000 – recall that a Dth is about 1,000 cubic feet.  We’re now talking roughly 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (or as EIA would state it, 20,000,000 million cubic feet)

US Natural Gas Consumption


Given that the U.S. consumes about 25,000,0000 million cubic feet for all end uses today, we would need to almost double our production capability to convert our coal burning power plants to natural gas.

You may recall from an earlier post that natural gas puts almost 50% less CO2 in the atmosphere than coal.  So converting to natural gas would reduce our annual carbon dioxide emissions by somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion tons.

Interesting stuff.

Combustion #2 – The Ratio of Weights and Calculating Emissions

To figure out how much carbon you’re dumping into the air, you need to examine the molecular weight of the fuel and the carbon content of the fuel.  For energy calculations, the following atomic weights are pretty much all you need to know:

Molecular Weights

  •  C             12
  • H                1
  • H2             2
  • O              16
  • O2            32
  • CO           28
  • CO2         44
  • H20         18
  • CH4         16
  • C2H4       28
  • C2H6O    46
  • S               32
  • NO           30
  • NO2         46
  • SO2          64
  • C8H18    114 (typical gasoline)

Don’t forget to refer to the Combustion #1 post to get heat of combustion values for various fuels.

Note that carbon burned in the air will preferentially create carbon dioxide and release heat.  Observe that a molecule of carbon has a weight of 12, whereas a molecule of CO2 has a weight of 44.  Therefore, burning 1 unit of carbon (it can be pounds, tons, etc) will generate 3.7 units of carbon dioxide.

Let’s take a look at the combustion analysis for natural gas and oil.

For our purposes, we will assume that natural gas consists of only CH4 (methane.)  In fact, natural gas often contains some butane, propane. ethane, nitrogen and other elements.

The combustion equation is pretty simple.  The corresponding molecular weights are to the right in parentheses.

CH4 + 2O2 = CO2 + 2H2O     (16 lb + 64 lb = 44 lb + 36 lb)

This tells us that burning 16 pounds of natural gas will generate 44 pounds of CO2.  The 36 pounds of water vapor can be ignored because it is benign, which is why hydrogen is such a great fuel.

The weight ratio of natural gas to carbon dioxide is 2.75.  So burning a ton of natural gas will release 2.75 tons of carbon dioxide.

You may recall from my earlier post that burning a pound of methane results in a release of 23,875 Btu.  From this we can conclude that methane delivers 8,682 Btu heat per pound of CO2 generated.

Let’s see how that compares with a generic fuel oil.  The combustion equation (ignoring the hydrogen products) and pertinent molecular weights are:

2 C14H30 (396) combines with 43 O2 => 28 CO2 (1,232) + 30 H2O

We observe that the weight ratio of fuel to CO2 is 3.1.  So burning a ton of fuel oil will release 3.1 tons of carbon dioxide.  You may find it surprising that the carbon dioxide emissions are not that much higher than natural gas, since natural gas is widely cited as a “cleaner” form of energy than oil.

What we need to keep in mind is that fuel oil delivers less heat per pound than natural gas.  If we figure a fuel oil energy content of 20,000 Btu per pound, we see that fuel oil delivers only 6,430 Btu heat per pound of CO2 generated.

To put this another way, 100,000 Btu of heat will result in CO2 emissions of 11.5 pounds if you are burning natural gas, 15.6 pound if burning fuel oil.  That difference is significant.

Coal is even more striking.  While the carbon content of coal varies, let’s figure it to be about 75% by weight.  It has negligible other combustibles, though there is other stuff in there like sulfur and mercury that can cause problems.

Well, we know the ratio of carbon to carbon dioxide is 3.7 to 1.  So with 75% carbon content, burning a ton of coal will emit about 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide (75% of 3.7.)

Coal contains roughly 13,500 Btu per pound, so coal delivers about 4,820 Btu heat per pound of CO2 generated.  And 100,000 But of heat from coal will result in CO2 emissions of roughly 20.8 pounds of CO2.  Let’s summarize this:

Carbon Dioxide Emissions per 100,000 Btu Liberated Heat

  • Hydrogen                  0
  • Natural Gas          11.5 pounds
  • Generic Fuel Oil  15.6 pounds
  • Generic Coal        20.8 pounds

So there you have it.  Once you know the chemical makeup of your particular fuel, calculating the carbon emissions is pretty simple.