Coal Trains to Coltrane

It’s Friday. That’s my only excuse.

Picture a train. It is composed of coal cars, the very coal cars James Hansen used as a metaphor harkening back to the Holocaust.

The coal cars are full–100 tons of coal in each and there are 100 cars to the mile. It’s a very long train. It stretches from Albuquerque New Mexico to Anchorage in Alaska.

The energy we get by burning all the coal in this train equals one quadrillion BTUs. We call it a quad.

Now picture 54 of these trains lined up side by side, each filled with 38 million tons of coal, each stretching from Albuquerque to Alaska.

And you can start your weekend on either an optimistic or pessimistic note–is your glass half-empty or half-full?

If you want to look on the bright side of life, you can make those 54 trains disappear. In fact, we did. That’s how much energy the world got last year from renewable sources–hydroelectric power, wind, solar, biomass and biofuels.

If being of good cheer is too much for you today, don’t worry–be gloomy. Once those 54 trains are magickally disappeared from the landscape, you have an unobstructed view of the 480 Infinity Trains that we used last year that were provided by sources that were not renewable.

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, have a good weekend.

27 responses to “Coal Trains to Coltrane

  1. Tom, This was a rather open ended article. I will comment with an idea that has been coming to me slowly over the past several months and your metaphor helped me formulate it. I have been having a number of discussions recently concerning climate/energy policy. I kept hearing a type of logic that left me puzzled. It goes something like, “It really doesn’t matter if co2 is causing all this crazy weather, it’s just another reason to do what we’ll have to do anyway.”
    There are lots of reasons to decrease our use of fossil fuels. (and reasons not to) They are different for each fuel and even different for each process we use to obtain those fuels (underground mining versus mountain top removal; fracking versus traditional drilling). Every shifting of energy sources causes a shift from one set of benefits and malefits to another.
    Early environmentalism focused on these individual problems and ways to mitigate them. Then 25 years ago the focus turned to co2 and more and more of the challenges were seen thru this lens. I’ve met too many people who seem to think that the arguments behind global warming aren’t that important if it gets people to do the “right thing.”
    I am guessing that you all saw the cover of Bloomberg’s Business Week with the caption, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” The editorial that goes with it is using Sandy to justify fracking. Apparently the good mayor has decided that the fracking moratorium should be lifted. I’m sorry, but replacing coal from non MTR sources burned in state of the art plants with fracked natural gas is far from a no brainer for me.

    • Marty,

      Average cost of steam coal delivered to New York State in 2011 was $4.22/MMBtu.

      Page 35 of this report –

      A ‘state of the art’ coal fired plant with all the pollution controls will run about $3 billion/GW while a more efficient CCGT will run about $1.2 billion/GW.

      Roughly CCGT gas enjoys a 2 cent/Kwh capital cost advantage and a littel bit of an efficiency advantage. For coal to be competitive in New York State for a ‘new plant build’ gas needs to be more then $7/MMBtu with coal at $4/MMBtu. Nuclear is already cost competitive against coal at $4/MMbtu.

      At current gas prices it’s cheaper to build a new CCGT gas fired plant in New York and just use the remaining coal fired plants as seasonal peakers.

      • Yes, it’s cheaper. The whole thing about fossil fuels and nuclear are the hidden costs. I grew up in a coal town. The coal company treated us hunkies as 2nd class citizens. Things only changed when blood was spilled. It took 40 years to clean up the surface water. It’s now in the middle of a fracking boom. The ground water is being polluted at an unprecedented rate. Add in the cost and energy of trucking water into all those homes, or writing of the homes which is probably cheaper.
        Southern New York can look at Northern PA. That’s why they insisted on a moratorium.
        Joke: How can you tell you’re over Marcellus shale? You keep getting run off the road by $80,000 trucks with out of state plates.

      • Marty,

        The groundwater is being polluted at an unprecedented rate.

        Do you have a handy reference?

    • Open-ended it was, Marty. Hopefully the excellent music makes up for it. Like I said, it was Friday…

      I think evaluating coal vs gas (and nuclear) as you and Harry do downthread is vital–but it can’t only be on costs. Or at least we need a definition of ‘fully-loaded-cost’ that includes remediation and health care.

      How bad is it in Northern Penn?

      • The problem with ‘fully loaded costs’ are that they are difficult to estimate and easily manipulated. There is no shortage of people who will see what they want to see in the Epidemiology statistics and find some friendly scientific journal to publish those studies….on both sides of the discussion.

        For example, I’ve visited Gillette,Wyoming and fully expected to find a town covered in coal dust. It wasn’t. The equipment that was digging the coal out of the ground wasn’t even covered in dust. The railroad tracks weren’t covered in dust despite the fact that 400 million tons of coal a year travel over those tracks. The only way to visibly tell the difference between the reclaimed land and untouched land was by the sign in front of the reclaimed land pointing out it was ‘reclaimed’.

        It’s a completely different picture then the one Marty relates based on his experience of growing up in a coal town in Pennsylvania.

        Maybe the relatively small population in Wyoming makes for better communication between ‘concerned citizens’ and ‘industrial/mining concerns’ as to expectations prior to issuing various permits.

  2. “Nuclear is already cost competitive against coal at $4/MMbtu.” I don’t have the time to respond to that.

    • Here are the financials on VC Summer. The numbers are a bit complicated because they are for 55% of a twin 1.1 GW Westinghouse AP1000. I.E. SCANA’s share.

      • I’ve been to Gillette too. The differences between Gillette and where I grew up are 40 years of hard fought for government regulations. In one of your previous posts you seemed to think that the Bush administrations relaxing regulations for frackers was a good thing. I live in the middle of it, I don’t.
        Sorting thru the myriad of subsidies for nuclear is a lifetimes work.

      • If frackers had to re-apply to the EPA everytime they tried a different solution we wouldn’t have fracking.

        In 2005 we were building LNG import terminals because we thought we were going to run out of natural gas.

        My position would be similar to the US NRC’s position on ‘research reactors’ vs ‘full scale commercial reactors’. Research would never move forward if the rules that applied to full scale commercial nuclear reactors applied to research reactors.

        The US EPA sets a floor…states are free to exceed that floor where appropriate(California does it all the time).

        The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality requires the exact composition of fracking fluid be ‘confidentially disclosed’ to the Department of Environmental Quality. The US EPA does not. I don’t know what Pennsylvania requires.

        For all I know it may very well be inappropriate to frack near large population centers. It’s a matter for the citizens in those areas to decide.

        I also visted Williston, ND this summer…the amount of heavy truck traffic exceeded automobile traffic by an order of magnitude. I’ve never seen so many heavy trucks in one place. I can’t imagine that anyone in ‘suburbia’ would tolerate it. Prior to the oil boom Williston was similar to many small towns along the HiLine, just barely hanging on.

        There is nothing wrong with city,county and state governments deciding what is in the best interest of their citizens after consultation with the experts and citizenry.

        From the tenor of the fracking debate in Pennsylvania it would appear that the city,county state governments did decide what was in their citizens best interest with inadequate consultation with the citizens.

      • harrywr2

        From the tenor of the fracking debate in Pennsylvania it would appear that the city,county state governments did decide what was in their citizens best interest with inadequate consultation with the citizens.

        As a Pennsylvania resident, I should know more than I do, but with what little I do know, I’m inclined to agree.

  3. “From the tenor of the fracking debate in Pennsylvania it would appear that the city,county state governments did decide what was in their citizens best interest with inadequate consultation with the citizens.”
    NO, that isn’t what happened. Many municipalities and townships and at least one county banned fracking within their boundaries. Then in 2010, PA elected Tea Partier Tom Corbett who ran promising smaller government. He and the Republican legislature passed a law making it illegal for local governments to regulate fracking. He then opened up all state property including college campuses to fracking. The frackers don’t even have to pay royalties or taxes.
    Anyone who wants smaller government should come to PA and see what it really means.

    • marty, can we develop this further? see question I asked you above. I am not a fan of Corbett…voted against him I did…and I heartily concur that the law exempting fracking from local planning control (which is otherwise the norm in PA I don’t know how this relates to other states) is a travesty. but is there a good source for objective information about the impacts of fracking in PA?

      • Actually, I can’t think of a source off hand that I trust completely. The industry is a great source of misinformation. So is the main stream media. There are many antifracking sites that are well meaning but don’t seem to understand geology or chemistry, much less physics. As I come across sites, I’ll post them here.
        Earth First had a “gathering” near Hickory Creek Wilderness and tried some stunts near Parker Dam State Park. I think they did more harm than good. The Parker Dam fracking site is a good one to study. They had an “industrial accident” (frack up) there and several square miles of wilderness were off limits to even hikers. The surface water is considered unsafe in what used to be one of PA’s most pristine areas. Did you see that in the Philly papers??
        I’ll repeat what I;ve said a couple of times on this blog. By 2075, water will be a bigger problem than energy or climate.
        I think Corbett will be a one termer. His popularity is already down to 22%. But sadly, it probably has more to do with the PSU/Sandusky/Paterno/Gricar affair.

  4. FRACKING The above is a link to a very interesting article by Joshua Frank. Apparently, a leftwing environmentalist has finally figured out that the EPA ruling on co2 will actually increase the green house effect.
    Did the people writing the regulation actually believe that the green house effect is a serious problem? I think that it should be obvious that they didn’t. If they didn’t, why are they writing the regulation?

    • I don’t follow the natural gas industry close enough to comment intelligently on that counterpunch has to say about frakking.

      I do however follow coal fairly close…
      This statement is about as misleading as one can get

      “Five years ago a staggering 151 new coal plants were slated for construction”

      If I go back to the 1979 EIA projections US coal consumption should be about 2 billion tons per year by now. Future baseload requirements have been consistently overestimated in the US since 1979. The number of ‘proposed’ baseload plants hasn’t come close to the number actually built in 30 years.

      Inevitably we have periods of ‘economic boomlets’ where someone projects the boomlet going out 20 years and on that basis proposes new baseload plant. By the time the permits are submitted the boomlet ends and the new plant gets shelved.

      Coal fired plants cost at least double what a CCGT plant costs and about 4 times what an OCGT costs. The capital costs on a new coal fired plant that ends up being underutilized will doom the utility. Nuclear has the same problem. Most of the existing coal fired base load is running at 60% utilization.

      I see the same convulted math when it comes to the coal export terminal debate in the PNW. We have 5 proposed export terminals and if they are all built they will be capable of exporting 150 million tons of coal per year.

      There are only 2 usable rail lines to transport coal over the Cascade mountain range. One of them is already at 120% of capacity. 5 terminals are proposed, if one gets approved the other 4 will probably be shelved due to lack of rail capacity or more likely, lack of export demand.

    • as someone with part of one dog in this fight, I would say if you mean that unconventional natgas actually has a higher GHG profile than coal, 1) that is far from a sure thing, and is leaning more heavily the other way as time goes on and 2) nevermind power plant efficiencies, if most of the gas is used to generate electricity.

      I think the both sides of the aisle on the EPA regulations see it as a “foot in the door” more than anything.

  5. Lately I have been wondering about emission cuts and the resulting lifestyle. How much is possible with the existing technology and western lifestyle?

    Last year CO2 emissions were 34 billion tons. Divvied up between 7 billion people that comes to 4.84 tons per head. Scientists say that we should cut it down to less than 20 billion tons by 2050 when there are 9 billion people. That would mean 2.2 tons a head.

    Right now the Chinese are close to 7 tons per capita. The French, with nuclear electricity, are around 6 tons level. The Danes, with most wind power in the world, are around 7- 8 tons per capita (mind you, the still use a lot of coal and gas and of course export oil and gas).

    India is still slightly below 2 ton level but they have 400 million people without electricity and blackouts for the rest.

    How much does that 2.2. ton budget allow? Round-trip flight New York-Paris-New York is about 1.5 tons….how much is driving 20 000 miles per year?

    • If these are serious questions:

      1) 2.2 tons a head in 2050 for 9 bn people is really aggressive (maybe crazy). But hey, go high. Scientists might as well pick a number on the high (or in this case) low end of possibility. They don’t get to MAKE policy. Other people can compromise.

      2) How much of its electricity does France get from nukes? I thought it was about 60%, Imports are mostly fossil I think.

      • I am perfectly serious and I think it is a legitimate question. Is it possible to live a year with 2 tons of CO2 emissions and have a western lifestyle? Or something similar? The lifestyle all the world aspires to…. or at least the vast majority.

        For your question #1, they are talking about zero emissions for some people (excluding breathing, I think ;)) But 2.2 tons would be pretty close to 50-60% cut of total emissions.

        As for # 2, the French produce about 75% of their electricity from nuclear.
        Norway produces almost 100% of their electricity by hydro. However, their emissions per capita are over 10 tons.

        This all has led me to wonder about the feasibility of the projected cuts. One would think that for example the Norwegians, with more hydroelectricity than they need, would be able to cut their emissions easily but that does not seem to be the case:
        “The document also re-confirmed a pledge to meet at least two-thirds of the national cuts domestically, though Norsk Industri is confident that this will not affect ETS sectors which can currently meet around half of their required reductions to 2020 using U.N.-backed offset credits.”

        If one of the richest countries in the world,already endowed with 100% renewable electricity, finds making cuts hard, what about the rest of us?

  6. Jarmo, I don’t think it’s possible. I think U.S. per capita emissions are about 9 tons a year. We consume about 310 mbtus per person per year. We can get down to Germany’s level–about 250 mbtus per capita annually, and in fact 9 states already are. So I think we could get to between 5 and 7 tons per person. But two? Hard to picture that.

    • Hello Tom,

      According to World Bank 2008 data, US CO2 emissions per capita were 18 tons, Germany 9.6, France 5.9, Italy 7.4, Denmark 8.4, Sweden 5.3, China 5.3, Canada 16.3, Australia 18.6

      It think you get slightly different results with different sources. However, China’s emissions have been growing close to 10 % annually so they must be about the same as Italy.

  7. On the subject of coal trains – interesting data graph from the US EIA

    The average cost of shipping coal by railroad to power plants increased almost 50% in the United States from 2001 to 2010…….Though they vary significantly, transportation costs accounted for 40% of the average overall cost of coal delivered at electric power plants in 2010.

    • Is it mostly fuel costs? I understand diesel prices more than tripled between 2000-2010 in the US.

      • Mine productivity East of the Mississippi has been dropping like a lead balloon, . East of the Mississippi average coal miner productivity is 2.67 tons per hour, West of the Mississippi is 15+ tons per hour, 30+ tons in Wyoming.We have already mined the ‘easy stuff’, add in safety concerns, aesthetic concerns, environmental concerns and eastern coal becomes expensive. So we have shifted to using Western Coal’.

        So in addition to fuel costs rising, transport distance has been rising as well. Then there is the issue of Warren Buffet liking to run his railroad at somewhat higher profit margins then the predecessor ownership.

  8. Jarmo, I doubt your initial number. Scientists have been calling for an 80% cut in emissions, and since that time emissions have increased. You put up a 40% cut in emissions.

  9. “…Once again, you don’t have to be a climate scientist to think that there seems to be a connection. The physical theory published first by Svante Arrhenius over 100 years ago and elaborated on by a century’s worth of scientists has observational evidence that tends to confirm it. I certainly believe in it….”

    Thank you for a very interesting item. The major point of interest that I found is encapsulated in the quote above. You see, I used to believe that the ‘greenhouse’ theory provided a complete explanation of the warm climate we experience on Earth, but I no longer do so. And I am particularly interested in the way people change their minds in circumstances like these – where there has been wide acceptance of a position for many years, and strong social pressures to conform to a line of thought.

    For the record, I currently believe that CO2 has the physical properties which result in back radiation, but that this effect in the Earth’s climate is totally overwhelmed by the massive energy transfers due to convection and the variations in albedo as clouds form and disperse. These are phenomena about which we know very little, but it seems obvious to me that the Earth has a stable climatic feedback system, otherwise we would have been cooked long ago, and that the sensitivities proposed in order to push the ‘CO2 menace’ just cannot be true. I further believe that, in order to maintain the belief that CO2 emissions alone are responsible for global warming, scientific data has been distorted and, in some cases, made up. The GISS dataset is a case in point, with ‘corrections’ lowering data before the 1970s to make the slope steeper…

    This kind of groupthink with regard to scientific phenomena is, surprisingly, very common. You would think that it was impossible in a scientific environment, but it seems to happen more often than not. The only time you get to hear about it is when it results in a major controversy, such as Piltdown Man, or the H. pylori hypothesis of Warren and Marshall. But it is much more frequent than that.

    Do you remember being taught that an aerofoil works by creating differential pressures above and below the wing? This was standard aeronautical doctrine from 1930 until about 1995 – in spite of the fact that aeronautics is a highly mathematical discipline, and it is easy to demonstrate that the differential pressures are inadequate to provide the lift required. The bulk of the lift, in fact, comes from reaction to the momentum of the air which the aerofoil displaces downwards. This was quietly accepted by the discipline only about a dozen years ago – no fuss, because it would have been embarrassing to explain that a whole competent sector of technological engineering had been ignoring so obvious a phenomenon.

    Issues such as the above were only of interest to a small coterie of insiders – aerodynamics lecturers. But a huge amount of money and prestige has been hung on the AGW hypothesis. Hundreds of thousands of careers are now dependent on it. If my belief is correct, the real world data will increasingly diverge from supporting the hypothesis. And I don’t think that this can be suppressed continuously….

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