For a few weeks I have been planning to write a message about Btus. It would have started something like this:
A Btu, or British thermal unit, is the amount of energy necessary to raise a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. (A pint of water is equal to a pound of of water.) A Btu is equal to 252 calories, or about the amount of energy in two tablespoons of olive oil or a cookie. Put another way, you would need about 8 to 10 Btus to power your body for 24 hours. Utility companies typically talk about BTUs in “quads” or in quadrillions of Btus (a quadrillion is a trillion with three more zeros), or “therms” (100,000 Btus), which is the unit you normally see on your gas bill.
Why should we care about Btus? Well, it gives us a way to compare the costs of different types of fuel. To produce one million Btus, we would need 293 KWhs of electricity, 80 pounds of coal, 250 pounds of hardwood, 11 gallons of propane, 975 cubic feet of natural gas, 8 gallons of gasoline, 12.5 gallons of ethanol, or one-sixth of a barrel of oil. (A note on ethanol: It’s just plain stupid. You need 130,000 Btus to produce a gallon of ethanol, which is only worth about 80,000 Btus.)
And that is as far as I got. I was trying to compare the costs of producing and delivering different types of energy so I could explain which ones made the most sense. But as I was writing, I realized that the production and delivery costs of the different fuels were only one part of a very complicated energy puzzle.
In the last few decades, we have relied on oil for our transportation fuels (gasoline, diesel, and jet), coal and natural gas for our electricity, and natural gas for heating. We have enough natural gas reserves in the US to power everything for 200 years or so, and enough coal to power everything for 500 years or so. That leaves oil as our only “real” problem. Given that natural gas is clean and cheap, we could solve our oil problem within just a few years if we shifted to natural gas as our primary transportation fuel. (With electric cars, we are headed in that direction. We’ll burn mostly natural gas to produce the electricity to power the new cars.)
A natural gas solution would save us the $1 trillion or so it would take to upgrade to a “smart” electrical grid. We could eliminate the costly subsidies for wind and solar power. We also could forget about trying to find enough lithium for millions of hybrid and electric car batteries. We could go back to using corn for food. We could let other energy options compete in a free market environment. If all we had to worry about was our “real” problem, we wouldn’t need some sort of “moon shot” energy solution.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of speculators, special interest groups, and irrational tree huggers (I’m sure there are a few rational tree huggers, but most of them are immune to facts.). To this we add government intervention in the form of taxes, subsidies, tariffs, and regulations. We also have wars and rumors of wars and natural events like hurricanes. We also have to add-in dishonest and disreputable people pushing schemes like CO2 credits or manipulating markets. And then we have the fear, uncertainty and doubt that comes from the possibility of even more government intervention, more unrest around the world, more dishonesty, and any number of stupid decisions that might be made because of the possibility of global warming or other environmental concerns.
The energy world is even too complicated for someone like T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire who made his money in the energy business. He concluded that the answer to our problem would be to use wind power for much of our electricity needs and natural gas for our cars. He spent millions promoting his solution, but his plan requires the US government to come up with large subsidies for wind power and a smart electrical grid (one that could transport electricity more than a few hundred miles with a storage capacity for times when the wind isn’t blowing). Even with the help of an appearance on 60 Minutes, his holdings have lost billions waiting for the government to support his plan.
In a reasonable world, we wouldn’t have big energy problems. In a reasonable world, there is enough and to spare. But we don’t live in a reasonable world. In our world we have to save farmers, coal miners, and polar bears. We have to worry about CO2 parts per million and a temperature increase of 1.7 degrees derived from bogus data. We have to live with governments and crooks (am I being redundant?) and all those with special interests. We have made our world way too complicated for a few simple facts about Btus.