13 September 2005

Oil versus Electricity, part deux

I was going to talk about alternatives in freight transportation, but Mozilla crashed and ate my expose.

Instead, I'd just like to leave a brief note on the rising costs of carbon-fuels, compared to those from electricity. I've talked before about the potential of electricity to supplant oil as our energy currency of choice. The main issues are that oil is fungible (interchangeable) in time and space, while electricity is neither, and the cost. With the rise in the cost of crude oil and natural gas, we are getting close to passing the point where electricity becomes cheaper than carbon fuels.

I'm going to assume $65/bbl of crude oil, $11 / Mbtu for natural gas. We'll take electricity as best case, British Columbia at $50 / MWh, and worst case California at $150 / MWh. Coal is $35 / ton at 6150 kWh / ton.

The results:


Cost per unit (US$)

Cost (US$/GJ)



65 / bbl



Natural Gas

11 / Mbtu



Coal (IL)

35 / short ton



Electricity (BC)

50 / MWh



Electricity (CA)

150 / MWh



As we can see, the cost in pure energy terms for reservoir-hydro derived electricity and oil are getting awfully close. If we were to take into the cost of refining crude into gasoline or diesel, electricity would be cheaper. Let's also keep in mind that electricity is a much higher exergy source of energy than the three main carbon fuels. It can do more work per Joule.

Hydroelectric power is already cheaper than electricity from coal; the proof is in my electrical bill. It's cheaper for me to use inefficient baseboards than to burn natural gas for heating. Clearly US States that are dependant on natural gas for electricity are in for some serious pain. Even given a 60 % efficient combined-cycle gas thermal plant, it will cost them $17.40 / GJ to produce electricity, or a seriously nasty 6.2 cents/kWh. That's not accounting for amortization for the capital, transmission costs, or operating costs. Alternatives like wind and solar power look attractive in comparison.

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