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A lump of coal and a bunsen burner

by budr Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 04:17:53 AM EST

According to the Energy Information Administration at the US Department of Energy, coal-fired generation accounts for 49.7% of total electric production in the US.  Gas-fired generation accounts for another 18.7%.  Other fossil fuels account for another 3% or so.  Altogether about 71% of all electricity produced in America today comes from the burning of fossil fuels.  Let me try to put that in perspective, in terms that all of us can relate to.

A thoughtful first diary by a longtime reader. -- Jérôme


About 71% of the electricity Americans use every day is produced by burning fossil fuels.  Just a number right?  71%.  More than two-thirds, almost three-quarters.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with the reality of global warming understands the importance of that number but still, it's just a number.  What does that number mean to me personally?  How does it relate to my life specifically?

I know about greenhouse gasses and their effect on climate change and global warming.  In many ways both large and small I have altered my life style to minimize my impact on the planet, on climate change, on global warming.  I haven't done nearly enough, but I am doing something.  And yet, perhaps I should take some more personal responsibility for that number.  I'm writing this on my PC, which requires electric power to operate.  As I type these words, my editor window occupies a fairly large portion of the screen space on my monitor.  How much, you ask?  Good question.  I haven't actually measured it, but I would guess my editor occupies something like 71% of the space on my screen.  Now what are the odds?  Really.

As I type these words I am burning fossil fuels to illuminate the pixels on my screen.  I'm burning coal as surely as if I had a large black lump of it smoldering on my desktop.  I'm burning natural gas as surely as if I had a bunsen burner flaming at my elbow.  I wonder if I would be more aware of my 49.7% contribution to greenhouse gas emissions if I could actually smell the noxious fumes from that smoldering lump.  I wonder if I would be more concerned about my 18.7% contribution to global warming if I could feel the heat radiating from that bunsen burner.

But the coal I burn is not on my desktop.  And it does not smoulder, it burns ever so fiercely in power plants miles away from my home.  The greenhouse gasses produced escape from smokestacks that I never see.  The gas I burn is not at my elbow.  It roars in boilers that I never hear.  And that is at least part of the problem.  The benefits of our modern industrial lifestyles are all around us, at our fingertips, while the negative consequences are all too often out of sight and out of mind.  And it is not just an American or a European problem.  The numbers will be somewhat different as the fuel mix varies from country to country, but the principle remains the same around the world.  Ask yourself as you read these words, what portion of the pixels on your screen are lit by fossil fuels?

This has been rattling around in my head in semi-fluid form for more than a month, but this is the first time I have actually committed it to disk.  It's not nearly as good as the version I worked out in my head as I drifted off to sleep a few nights ago.  My first diary ever.  Constructive criticism would be most welcome.

Also available in green.

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A good diary that gets right to the heart of some of the contradictions involved in some interim solutions to the global warmingdebate.

However, it should be noted that burning coal to produce electricity is a fairly efficient way of harnessing the available energy from coal. Equally, there are technologies emerging for removing CO2 from power station exhausts that are only worthwhile in large plants.

Course we should be moving to renewable energy sources, wind, wave, geothermal. A windfarm in every community would help.

But politicians like grand expensive projects that might bear their name into posterity, namely nuclear energy. Nuclear also has the benefit of large profits for big engineering companies, the idea of them paying for de-commissioning is frankly dishonestly laughable : thus boosting future profits.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:56:47 PM EST
Until those technologies emerge, I would rather not have any more fossil fuel power stations. Otherwise we will be falling into the trap that the USA continually falls into - the promise of a tecnology fix tomorrow to give licence to consume today. It is the same rationale that means there is an excuse not to develop public transport infrastructures as down the line are coming electrical/hydrogen gas or moonbeam powered automobiles.

Even if the technology is developed in the next couple of years, there is no guarantee that it can be retro-fitted to existing stations. Nor is there evidence that so-called clean air legislation and NIMBYism can be overcome to utilise the full efficiency of fossil fuel burning, combined heat and power in which the waste heat is cycled through district heating systems. The last one to use that in London, Battersea, closed many years ago.

For once there do seem to be genuine proposals to move towards green taxes. That is going to hurt some people. The ordinary tungsten lamp is goingto have to be priced out of the market. When you have to pay the same for an ordinary bulb as for a compact flourescent or similar lamp, people are going to change. My own preference would be to have a form of transport carbon emmission scheme for individual tax payers. Bascially that would involve putting very large carbon emmission charges on vehicle fuels, including aviation kerosene, while giving everybody a large personal cash rebate to offset it. It would get over the problem of the lack of public transport in rural areas and the poor but at the same time penalise Chelsea Tractors. Longer term we could even move to a sort of personal carbon emissions trading - maybe even finding in it a use for those personal ID cards Blair is demanding we carry. High carbon users - whether in cars or planes - would be forced to buy carbon units but those who use public transport would be able to sell them back, in a similar way to the existing schemes for industry.

by Londonbear on Mon Oct 30th, 2006 at 12:38:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Otherwise we will be falling into the trap that the USA continually falls into - the promise of a tecnology fix tomorrow to give licence to consume today. It is the same rationale that means there is an excuse not to develop public transport infrastructures as down the line are coming electrical/hydrogen gas or moonbeam powered automobiles.

This may seem a casual point to some, but it is key to understanding why Americans are not more concerned about global warming, and why so little is being done to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.  In two words, comfort and inertia.  I can recall only one time when America really became interested in renewable energy and alternatives to gasoline and other fossil fuels and that of course was during the protracted 1973 gasoline shortages and accompanying large price increases.  After that was over it was business as usual. Roll out the custom monster vans.  This year's price increases were nowhere near sufficiently large or lasting to start the ball rolling.  Up the price of a US gallon to $5.00 plus and close enough stations to make lines form. Americans with no relief in sight will finally get the picture and start pushing their elected representatives, as well as quickly selling off their gas guzzlers.  Of course, this series of events is not likely to originate from within the political system.  Gradual price increases and an adequate supply are an opiate gladly furnished by big oil,  coal, the automotive industries and their political allies.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:00:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This may seem a casual point to some, but it is key to understanding why Americans are not more concerned about global warming, and why so little is being done to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.  In two words, comfort and inertia.

Our most cherished myth is that technology has an easy solution for every problem.  The history of the twentieth century, as interpreted by our corporatist media, has given us every reason to believe the inherent truth of that myth.  We are conditioned to think that we can master any challenge with a minimum of discomfort or sacrifice.  Not to worry, technology will save us in the nick of time as it has so many times before.

Not that we are unique in that.  I think most Europeans share the myth to some degree, but we have made it our own.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 07:12:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And why is it a myth?  Just because you say so?!  Nutjobs always claimed that the end of the world is near, so far THAT turned out to be a myth.

Meanwhile, the primordial forests of Europe and Asia have been completely destroyed by preindustrial civilizations.  This stopped with the advent of industry.  Life expectancy is longer today, the standard of living is higher, food is more healthy and more plentiful, water is cleaner, once deadly diseases are extinct or curable.  All thanks to modern industry.

Surely industry will be our undoing, and soon.  I can most clearly see it!  (When on LSD, which is an industrial product, too.)

by ustenzel on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 05:09:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The term myth has come to mean in popular usage something that is widely believed but untrue.  I had in mind something closer to the original meaning of the term myth, a deep narrative that informs our understanding and guides our action in the world.  In that sense, whether a myth is true in any objective sense is irrelevant to its power as myth.  

And in that sense, I stand by what I wrote.  I believe one of the foundation myths of the American experience is the fundamental belief that there is a technological answer to every problem.  In a very real sense, the history of America has proven the truth of that belief.  But our history has also proven, particularly in the last few decades, the limitations of that belief.  We are facing any number of serious problems which have no technological solution.  And in some cases, our technological solutions -- real solutions to real problems -- have produced new problems of their own.

The history of agriculture is intertwined with the history of humankind.  Each increase in the size of human settlements was accompanied by further sophistication in the cooperative effort to produce, store, and distribute ever-larger quantities of food.  New technologies, like the plow and the irrigation ditch, led to new abundance but also new problems, like soil erosion and the buildup of salt in the soil.  Progress was slow but steady.  Through the centuries, the ratio of population to food supply remained relatively stable, with both growing at a roughly equal rate.  But with the scientific revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the human population began surging, and for the first time it seemed possible that the population might soon outstrip the ability of the environment to yield enough food.  This fear was articulated at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the English political economist Thomas Malthus; that he was famously wrong has been due to a series of remarkable innovations in the science of agricultural production.  Malthus was right in predicting that the population would grow geometrically, but he didn't foresee our ability to make geometric improvements in agricultural technology.  Even today, with several countries in the world suffering massive famines, there is little doubt that a commitment to use more land and newer agricultural methods could vastly increase the amount of food produced on earth.  The problem we now face is therefore more complicated than the one Malthus identified.  In theory, the food supply can keep up with the population for a long while yet, but in practice, we have chosen to escape the Malthusian dilemma by making a set of dangerous bargains with the future worthy of the theatrical legend that haunted the birth of the scientific revolution: Doctor Faustus.

Al Gore, Earth In the Balance

Gore hints at an even greater dilemma that we may soon face.  Our planet now supports a human population that would have been unimaginable even a century ago, thanks to modern, high-tech agriculture.  Yet that agriculture utterly depends on massive inputs of fossil fuels, primarily petroleum.  Modern agriculture uses petroleum products for everything from fuel to run its machines, to artificial fertilizers made from petroleum.  The Green Revolution runs on oil.  Absent an uninterrupted supply of cheap and plentiful petroleum, the Green Revolution comes to a grinding halt.  And absent the petroleum powered Green Revolution, no known viable agricultural models are likely to support a human population even half its current size.

But not to worry, technology will save us.  It always has.  What will it be this time?  Ethanol?  Hydrogen?  Solar powered tractors?  Atomic combines?  I think not.  Perhaps there is some miraculous breakthrough in a lab somewhere, some easy answer to the imminent demise of the petroleum economy.  I certainly don't know of any.  Yet we are conditioned to assume that some such breakthrough is out there, that it is viable on a global industrial scale, and that it can be deployed in time to avert any impending crisis.  I am certainly conditioned to make that assumption, or I wouldn't sleep at night.  That is what I mean by myth.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 08:22:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This comment would make an excellent diary on its own.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Nov 2nd, 2006 at 06:15:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are too kind.  Alas, my most creative moments, such as they are, seem to come most often when another's thoughts trigger a thought in response.  And I have written elsewhere about the many fine diaries I have composed in my head but never gotten on disk.

Actually, I think I might be able to make a diary out of this.  I could add some thoughts about my father, Apostle of the Green Revolution, technological farmer par excellence.  I'll see what I can do.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Thu Nov 2nd, 2006 at 08:28:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My first diary ever.

Yay!  Have a flirtini.

As I type these words I am burning fossil fuels to illuminate the pixels on my screen.  I'm burning coal as surely as if I had a large black lump of it smoldering on my desktop.  I'm burning natural gas as surely as if I had a bunsen burner flaming at my elbow.  I wonder if I would be more aware of my 49.7% contribution to greenhouse gas emissions if I could actually smell the noxious fumes from that smoldering lump.  I wonder if I would be more concerned about my 18.7% contribution to global warming if I could feel the heat radiating from that bunsen burner.

Imagine if you could see the smoking wrecks of those other houses with their four (or is it six) wide screen televisions, each in a separate (and heated?) room, lights blazing as tumble dryers spin and washing machines wash and chargers charge while someone drives to the shop to pick up some cheese.

(As I write, the bed I am in the process of sawing up and burning lies, well some of it, in ashes in the grate of the fireplace...smog and CO2 ahoy!)

Maybe compare your use of the computer with its alternative.  An electric typewriter, perhaps?  Or trekking off to the nearest library to find all that luvverly information the internet gives us access to...  Not so much "Am I saving as much as I could?" but rather, "Am I spending as wisely as I can?"  Coz there's a difference between travelling by plane to see long-unseen family and travelling by plane to be bored on another part of the planet.

Anyways, no criticism here.  Just another (yes!  Coz we're celebrating!)...yes, another Flirtini for ye!

(Another useful way to use the burning coal is to watch The Mighty Boosh, but that may be a personal taste thang...see what you think...)

;)

(I have found a good use for gas-power is to ramp up the old victriola and listen to Keith Jarret playing a harpsichord...)




Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Mon Oct 30th, 2006 at 05:56:23 PM EST
We no longer burn coal to produce electricity in France, and very little gas, but thanks to market liberalisation, this may changes. For the first time in 30 years, there are now plans afoot to build a new coal power plant, and many more to build gas-fired plants.

And then we complain about global warming and dependency on Russia and we do not make the link either.

Collectively, we are truly insane.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 04:16:22 AM EST
As per Starvid:
http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2006/9/7/104659/0820

and as per We Support Lee:

http://wesupportlee.blogspot.com/2006/09/danish-wind-gridis-20-capacity-enough.html

There is no way we can address the overwhelming prospect of catastrophic global warming without an increase in nuclear plants.  They're already displacing greenhouse gas on a large scale worldwide.  I am horrified to think of France reverting to fossil fuels.

Sweden, Switzerland, and France have the lowest per capita carbon emissions in Europe because of reliance on nuclear and hydro.

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:36:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is no way we can address the overwhelming prospect of catastrophic global warming without an increase in nuclear plants

That's a bit of an exaggeration. We could simply reduce our energy usage by an awful lot.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:42:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But that would be bad for GDP growth?

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:45:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yup, and that would be awful for some reason that escapes me at the moment.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:46:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I could have put it better.  There are many ways we can reduce greenhouse gases, including conservation.  But there is no way to mitigate them on a large scale without also continuing to use nuclear energy and without more nuclear plants.  If new nuclear plants are not built, new coal plants will.  And in regard to dangers to the environment and public health, coal outstrips nuclear by far.

It's true that we could use less energy.  But I have yet to hear from a blogger who has sworn off using his computer.  And hardly anyone (in the US,anyway) is willing to forego driving a car.

Here's a good summary of what can be done to mitigate greenhouse gases using a variety of solutions:

http://www.princeton.edu/~cmi/resources/CMI_Resources_new_files/CMI_Stab_Wedges_Movie.swf

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:59:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In theory yes. And by a lot.

In practice no. At least nukes are slightly politically possible.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 11:01:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jimmy Carter staked his presidency on that notion.  He walked to his inauguration rather than riding in a limosine.  He turned down thermostats and put on sweaters.  He installed solar panels on the White House.  He was one of our truly great American presidents, and one of the most underestimated.  He was right about energy thirty years before anyone else.  And for his sins we replaced him after a single term with a smooth talking demagogue who had parlayed a mediocre film career into a pretty good gig playing a governor in California.

We all watch with growing concern the global calamity that is the George W Bush presidency, but almost everything that concerns us about him began with Reagan.  We all ponder with varying degrees of sadness and anger the current reality compared to what might have been if Al Gore had taken office in 2001.  Imagine how very different the world might be now if Jimmy Carter had served a second term.  The alternate reality with respect to energy policy alone is enough to boggle the mind.


We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 12:57:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Reagan message was the exact opposite of Carter's--enjoy life, spend, flaunt your wealth, buy big cars, don't pay taxes because they just go to people with welfare Cadillacs.

Carter bummed everyone out.  He didn't offer fun and opulence.  I think that's why Gore has been so careful in the way he's shaped his message in An Inconvenient Truth and his speeches about global warming.

People want to be entertained and coaxed into feeling good by politicians. Reagan was a genius at that.  Never mind that there was no substance.

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 01:14:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
basically, it's a perfect example of the primary downside of popularly elected officials.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 04:33:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Like I wrote in that thread:

it is more important in what way the power is generated than what how much power is consumed.

It's more important to deal with supply than with demand. But of course one should do both.

And to answer the question in the diary:

Ask yourself as you read these words, what portion of the pixels on your screen are lit by fossil fuels?

About 0-10 %, depending on the weather and the current level of political folly.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 11:08:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]


Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 11:11:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
About 0-10 %, depending on the weather and the current level of political folly.

Sigh.  Wish we could all just move to Sweden.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 01:21:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Everyone can't go to Sweden, but Sweden can go to everyone!

Buy ABB Atom power reactors!

(sigh... ABB Atom sold to -> Westinghouse -> Toshiba

And since Toshiba is a giant conglomerate you can't even invest in dear ole ABB Atom anymore)

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 01:45:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's the same over here.

Deregulation -> gas plant.

It's a crime. Even worse, it's stupid.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 11:02:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks.  Until we can feel in our bones how responsible we are as individuals, not much is going to happen.  We can be angry at energy corporations, but we have to admit that we're paying them to do what they do--which is to give us light and power so that we live comfortably and have much longer lifespans than the 2 billion souls without electricity.

The budget for energy research in the US is about half what it was 20 years ago.  And of course during that time more fossil fuel plants have gone online.

I.B., here's a link you might find of interest:

http://www.issues.org/21.3/lorenzini.html

Also, the NY Times for October 30 has an excellent article on just how serious all the ramifications of our present carbon-emitting practices are.  Good sidebars on the need for a Manhattan Project for energy, etc.:  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/30/business/worldbusiness/30energy.html?em&ex=1162443600&en=a 6a1ab4734ae989d&ei=5087%0A

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 10:22:17 AM EST


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