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How much coal to power our houses?

Duke Power’s Belews Creek Steam Station, Belews Creek, North Carolina

My post yesterday was about how many kilowatt hours of electricity the abbey uses on a cold winter day. Though I use about half as much energy as the average American, there are no grounds for boasting. When that energy use is translated into pounds of coal, it is substantial.

Here’s how we can do the math. Most of my electricity here probably comes from a coal-fired steam plant, because that’s the nearest generator. That’s Duke Power’s Belews Creek Steam Station. The Wikipedia article on the steam station gives some statistics on the station’s efficiency and tells us how many Btu’s of thermal energy are required at the station to generate a kilowatt hour of electricity. At Belews Creek, which is a pretty efficient steam plant, 9,023 Btu of heat is needed to generate 1 kWh of electricity.

Coal varies in its energy content, but a reasonable average for coal is 20 million Btu of heat per 2,000 pounds of coal. So one pound of coal releases 10,000 Btu of heat when it’s burned. Now we can do the math for roughly how much coal is required to supply the abbey’s electricity.

On the coldest day of January, I used 37 kWh of electricity. Translated to pounds of coal, that means that the abbey required 33 pounds of coal for heat, light, cooking, appliances, etc., on the coldest day of January. On the warmest day of January, it works out to 11 pounds of coal. For the month of December, I used 625 kWh of electricity. That works out to 563 pounds of coal for December. That doesn’t sound so good, does it? But at least my energy consumption is on the low side for an American.

In 2012, I used a total of 6,764 kilowatt hours of electricity. That means I’m responsible for burning just over 3 tons of coal in 2012. Now look at our sprawling suburbs, our bright lights, our wasteful buildings, and use your imagination.

If you’d like to do the math to roughly translate your own electrical consumption to an equivalent amount of coal, multiply the number of kilowatt hours on your electric bill by .9023. The .9023 number represents the coal-to-electricity ratio for North Carolina’s Belews Creek plant, but your local numbers probably don’t vary too much, and with a little Googling you may be able to localize your calculations.

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