From the Industrial Revolution we learned that economic growth is inextricably linked to energy and as a result, our future is dependent upon equitable access to energy. When the Stourbridge Lion made entry as the first American steam locomotive in 1829 it was used to transport Anthracite coal mined in nearby Carbondale, PA to a canal in Honesdale that in turn linked to the Hudson River and onto New York City. Coal fueled the growth of New York and America’s Industrial Revolution because coal was cheap and more efficient than wood.
Advances in science and technology gave way to improvements in manufacturing, mining, and transportation. Energy became the catalyst to industrial growth. Steam power such as Thomas Newcomen’s steam powered pump in 1712 developed for coal mining and James Watt’s steam engine in 1765 were initially used to bring energy to market.
In terms of heating efficiency, coal at the time offered almost double the energy, pound for pound, in comparison to wood. Energy Units and Conversions KEEP Oil offers higher energy efficiencies over coal and wood, but as with most hydrocarbon fuels, carbon and other emissions are costly to our economy and environment.
With rapid growth in automobile production in the U.S., oil became the predominant form of fuel. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2004 the U.S. spent over $468 billion on oil.
Figure 1 U.S. Energy Consumption by Fuel
We all need to become more conversant in understanding energy costs and efficiency and as a corollary, better understand the benefits of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydrogen fuel cells. A common metric we should understand is the kilowatt-hour (KWH) – the amount of electricity consumed per hour. The KWH is how we are billed by our local electric utility and can be used to compare costs and efficiency of hydrocarbon fuels and alternative energies.
One-kilowatt hour equals 3,413 British Thermal Units (BTUs). One ton of Bituminous Coal produces, on the average, 21.1 million BTUs, which equals 6,182 KWH of electric at a cost of about $48 per short ton (2,000 pounds). That means coal cost approximately $0.01 per KWH. To put that into perspective, a barrel of oil at $90/barrel distilled into $3.00 gallon gasoline is equivalent to 125,000 BTUs or 36.6 KWH of energy. Gasoline at $3.00/gallon equates to $0.08 per KWH. So gasoline at $3.00 per gallon is eight times more expensive than coal.
Is oil and gasoline significantly more efficient than coal? Let’s compare on a pound for pound basis. A pound of coal equates to about 10,500 BTUs or approximately 3.1 KWH per pound. A gallon of gasoline producing 125,000 BTUs weighs about 6 pounds equating to 6.1 KWH per pound (125,000 /3,413 /6). While gasoline is almost twice as efficient as coal, coal’s lower cost per KWH is why it is still used today to generate electric.
The Bottom Line: the economics of energy determines its use – coal still accounts for approximately half of our electric generation because it has a lower cost than other fuels. However, there are two factors to consider 1) the cost of carbon is not calculated into the full price of coal or other hydrocarbon fuels and 2) the cost of conventional fuel is calculated on a marginal basis while alternative fuel costs are calculated on a fixed cost basis. Meaning the cost of roads, trucks, and mining equipment is not factored into the price of each piece of coal, only the marginal cost of producing each ton of coal. For solar, hydrogen fuel cells, and wind energy systems, the cost to construct the system is factored into the total cost while the marginal cost of producing electric is virtually free. We need a framework to better measure the economics of alternative energy. The impact of carbon on our climate and global warming are clearly not measured in the costs of hydrocarbon fuels nor is the cost of protecting our access to oil such the cost the Iraq War.
Despite the carbon issues surrounding coal, (coal has higher carbon-to-hydrogen ratio in comparison to oil or gas) coal is more abundant and therefore is cheaper than oil. As electric utilities in 24 states embrace alternative energies through such programs as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), perhaps the benefits of alternative energies will begin to combat the negative economics of hydrocarbon fuels.