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I awoke Christmas morning, turned on the lights, took a shower, and made a cup of coffee, and found myself marveling, and not for the first time in my life, at that fact that I live in a warm house.  I grew up in a house without central heat, so it is not something I take for granted–it truly is a gift.  Most of my childhood, we burned kerosene, but there were a few years where we burned coal, anthracite delivered by dump truck into our cellar, carried up to the kitchen in a bucket.  I remember it as black and dirty, and burned hot with an acrid smoke.

My wife and I own a cabin that still does not have central heat–there is a wood stove.  It  was built in 1927, and was upgraded somewhat in the late 1980s, but is not particularly energy efficient. A precious occupant left a stack of firewood a decade ago, which we have just finished burning.  So this fall I found myself cutting firewood for the stove.  The job involves felling trees, limbing them, cutting the wood into lengths to move and fit into the stove, drying the wood (takes about a year), splitting, and then, on a daily basis, moving the wood into the house by the stove. All of it is hard physical labor–but also satisfying–at the end of the day, I can see what I’ve done.  

On a daily basis, I move firewood from the woodshed into the cabin–a distance of perhaps 200 feet.  We only heat part a few rooms, to limit the amount of wood we burn.  I estimate that we use about 100 pounds of wood a day in the winter.  My wife takes out the ashes every few days–at most a pound of residue left from burning the wood.

Bonfire, Spring Camping, March 2003

Which leads, finally, to the point of this story–where did all the rest of that weight go?   It disappeared into the atmosphere mostly as carbon dioxide and water vapor.   Nearly all of that 100 pounds a day goes into the air.  

Wood disappears, Spring Camping, March 2003

As I sit in my city home, heated by natural gas, I think about the energy I use.  A few years ago, I went onto the Energy Information Agency web site and from that calculated the amount of energy each American uses on a daily basis.  At that time, it was about 845,000 BTU/day–a meaningless number to most people.  To convert that into units that people do understand, that is 7.2 gallons of gasoline, or for the purposes of this story, 84.5 pounds of coal.  Per person.  Per day.  Everyday.

I live in a household of three people, and we have two working fireplaces.  Some years we do hang stockings by the chimney with care–which are supposed to be filled with gifts from Santa if we’ve been good, and lumps of coal if we’ve been bad.

So here’s my thought experiment for this Christmas.  Suppose this year, Santa delivered a single day’s energy supply to us in coal dumped down our chimney.  My family would have received a 250 pound ration of coal, which would fill the fireplace, and spill onto our hardwood floors.  Burning that much coal would release about 930 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere–nearly a half ton per day.  For just our household.

Coal grate, Fairbanks Power Plant, 2008

Of course, except for the firewood we use at our cabin, all the rest of our energy arrives at our house unannounced and unnoticed.  Our natural gas comes in pipes, our electricity in wires, and even the gas for our cars is pumped without physical effort on our part. It’s like magic–our lights go on, our house stays warm, and our hot water flows.   

It is easy to see why most people have a hard time visualizing climate change–we never lift a finger to get our energy, and the gases released into the atmosphere are mostly invisible.  But every once in a while we can see the process at work…

3 ton pile of coal outside home, St Paul Island, Alaska, 2008


Ben beside a 150 ton truck, 2008, Usibelli Coal Mine

On an annual basis, my family’s 930 pounds per day of carbon dioxide gas emission results in a total of 165 tons per year.   if that were a solid, it would fill that truck towering over Ben.  More than enough to bury our house.  So, this Christmas, instead of Santa and his reindeer flying through the air, I think about that 165 ton lump of coal that went up the chimney.


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