Wednesday, June 15, 2011

roadtrip notes; flooding, energy, sandbags

 Driving across the Midwest I saw a lot of new grain storage bins -- see the shiny one on the left? --  they don't call them silos, they're bins.  Nearly every farm had a new bin or two, and I saw lots of newly constructed bins.   This is the other side of the ethanol issue -- corn ethanol is pretty popular in the corn belt. 

 In Sioux City, Iowa they had sandbag filling stations.  dump truck loads  of sand, pallets of empty bags.  The local radio stations were asking for volunteers to fill the bag.   This parking lot flooded 3 days after this picture was taken.  They've filled and placed millions of sandbags.  It's a slow-motion flood -- the army corps of engineers is increasing the water flowing over the dams slowly because there's no more holding capacity behind them,and if they don't, they'll have failures.   This means that the flood creeps up a few inches an hour...  but it's still a flood.  Lots of people being displaced, lots of crops ruined. 
Click in picture for bigger version
 This is a huge coal mine in eastern Montana.  It's right next to (and actually goes under) I90.  What most folks don't know is that we have a 200-250 year supply of coal in the USA. We could supply our entire energy production from our coal deposits for more than a hundred years.  I don't think we'll ever have to worry about a lack of energy, but there are drawbacks to burning coal. 
 Next to this coal mine is a huge electric generation plant, and this is the dirty little secret about electrical cars.  57% of all electricity generated in the USA is generated by burning coal.  So we're taking oil burners off the road and replacing them with coal burners.  You just don't see the coal burning -- but it's there.  The more popular the electric cars, the more coal we'll consume.   Maybe burning coal is better/cleaner than burning oil... but I view them as basically the same.  Both are fossil fuels.  We in the USA prefer our dirt to be out of site.  So next time you see a prius going down the road (or a Chevy leaf, or a Tesla roadster) remember that it's not really an electrically powered vehicle -- it's coal fired!
I am seeing more of these windmills (these are in south Dakota) and they're an extremely visible alternate energy.  I think they're pretty cool.   But while they're cool, right now we only produce 2% of our electricity with them.  We are the 2nd largest windmill power producer in the world -- china is first.   The estimate is that in 18 years we could be up to 20% of the USA electrical needs -- which means coal will still be #1 by quite a margin. 


Snowi-Ella said...

The windmills are actually my favorite part about the midwest. They have a lot in Eastern Washington, too, but the place I've seen them the most is Wyoming.

Kudos on getting some pretty good shots! It sounds like you enjoyed your trip.

Anonymous said...

"What most folks don't know is that we have a 200-250 year supply of coal in the USA. We could supply our entire energy production from our coal deposits for more than a hundred years. I don't think we'll ever have to worry about a lack of energy, but there are drawbacks to burning coal." (emphasis added)

In order to properly qualify such statements it is essential that one stipulate the growth rate of consumption. Clearly, promoting MORE consumption means that you will increase your your current rates of consumption, which will deplete your reserves FASTER, thereby nullifying the initial static period/number (such as "100 years").

Stating that current coal supplies could last us 100 years at our CURRENT rate of consumption would be perfectly acceptable (the math should be fairly easy to show this). But, promoting increased use and NOT stating what that increase (growth) is is a totally unmeasurable statement, and would invalidate the stated timeframe/period.

For a further understanding of this I refer people to Dr. Albert Bartlett's presentation Arithmetic, Population and Energy ( It's what I'd term "fundamental" to our understanding.

Otherwise, nice commentary (always good to make people aware of energy issues and facts) :-)

Bruce King said...

We have more than 250 years of coal at current consumption rates. I speculated in my post that the consumption rate would rise, to an average of 2.5 times our current, or 250%. Even with our consumption more than doubling...

We still have more than 100 years supply.

Does that help?

RH said...

Love the pix. Love this blog. Very readable, entertaining, things to look at...

Here's an audio on coal:
Our energy future is complicated, no good answers. I appreciate the work at the Post Carbon Institute.

JC said...

I really enjoy your blog. It has been very educational and also entertaining at times.

A couple things I'd add though are that most Priuses aren't running on coal. They recharge their batteries from their gas burning engines. A plug in version may become available soon though. This may be nitpicking, but it leads to another point.

One problem with our current energy consumption is that we all want our power supplied at approximately the same time of day. This stresses the infrastructure, because we need to be able to handle peak demand, even though most times we are only at a small fraction of the total capacity. This peak demand usually occurs in the late afternoon of hot summer days, but this varies greatly based on the region.

Because of these peak demands, power companies run things call "peaker plants" that burn natural gas during heavy energy consumption, but they are quite inefficient. Overnight charging of electric cars would allow us to use the over supply of electricity (windmills running at 2 AM, nuclear power plants that we already have, hydro, etc.) to charge batteries when that generating potential might be otherwise wasted. Just a thought to consider about the future of electric cars.

Who knows what we will be experiencing in the future, but there sure are a lot of possibilities, some for better, some for worse.

Bruce King said...

You're right about the prius, JC. If its a stock prius, it's entirely gas fueled, so doesn't actually burn coal.

But the other cars mentioned, and any pure-electric or plug-in car does burn coal.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, funny how the midwest is so big on ethanol (not). Funny how we humans are still looking for consumable energy as our primary source (as opposed to solar, wind, or geo-thermal). I heard Iceland is near 100% geothermal for their power production...

Rebecca T. of Honestmeat said...

Bruce- the electricity you receive in your home is completely dependent on the region you live in. As a resident of the PNW, most of your electricity actually comes from hydro, not coal.
Coal is nasty, you just don't live in a region that gets to enjoy it's many consequences. Acid rain is killing all the firs, spruces, & hemlocks in the Appalachian range, asthma & cancer rates are closer next to coal-fired power plants, mountains are being wiped off the face of the planet in Kentucky, West Virginia, and other places.
The beauty of electric cars is that you can power it via home-made energy. Slap some solar panels on your roof, install a small wind turbine, set up a little micro-hydro turbine in the creek behind your house, and voila- you are no longer dependent on some sheiks in Saudi Arabia for your transportation.

Bruce King said...

Rebecca; we do have coal fired plants in washington state as well, and virtually every source of power has its associated costs. Hydro is actually not the reason that the dams were built along the columbia. Irrigation was the driving force behind it. Hydro power was just a nice addition. Speaking as someone whos mother was displaced by coulee dam when it was built -- the town she was born in is under the resevoir.

With respect to coal, my background is a little different than most folks; my great grandfather, grandfather and father were all hard-rock miners, and I'm well aware of what a mine looks like and what mining operations can do.

With that said, I don't see any of our energy sources as free. It's a matter of determining which price we're willing to pay. I used to be a big fan of Nuclear as a low-impact way to go until I realized that you have to draw a 150 mile radius around every nuke plant and take a small, but real, risk that you will lose all use of that land, as happened most recently in Japan, but previously in chernobyl.

...and we're already paying the acid rain price on the west coast because of chinese coal consumption.