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Power Density Primer: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of the Unfolding Transition to Renewable Electricity Generation (Part II – Coal- and Wood-Fired Electricity Generation)

By Vaclav Smil -- May 10, 2010

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a five part series that provides an essential basis for the understanding of energy transitions and use. The opening post on definitions was yesterday.

Baseline calculations for modern electricity generation reflect the most important mode of the U.S. electricity generation, coal combustion in modern large coal-fired stations, which produced nearly 45% of the total in 2009. As there is no such thing as a standard coal-fired station I will calculate two very realistic but substantially different densities resulting from disparities in coal quality, fuel delivery and power plant operation. The highest power density would be associated with a large (in this example I will assume installed generating capacity of 1 GWe) mine-mouth power plant (supplied by high-capacity conveyors or short-haul trucking directly from the mine and not requiring any coal-storage yard), burning sub-bituminous coal (energy density of 20 GJ/t, ash content less than 5%, sulfur content below 0.5%), sited in a proximity of a major river (able to use once-through cooling and hence without any large cooling towers) that would operate with a high capacity factor (80%) and with a high conversion efficiency (38%).…