Lessons from Dr. Evil (Episode 67)

Listen to the podcast here. Have you noticed that the numbers we use in daily conversation keep getting bigger and bigger? When I was young my father pointed out to me that a family who had one million dollars could live off the interest alone, and would have a tough time spending it all. While that was certainly true at the time, the value of a million dollars is not what it used to be. If you listen to the podcast you’ll hear an audio clip of one of my favorite movie villains to help illustrate my point.  Even Dr. Evil had trouble comprehending the size of a billion dollars, but what hundreds of billions or even a trillion? We hear and read those numbers in the news and in conversation, but what do they really mean? It’s easy to understand the number of zeros that make them different, but that still be pretty abstract. I contend that many of us really don’t comprehend how large those numbers are when it comes to measuring things in the real world.  We need visual or mental references to help us understand the scale of such large quantities. Let’s use electrical power as an example. The base unit of measure for electrical power is the Watt, but what is the difference between a watt, a KW, a MW, and a GW? 1 watt will barely power a small incandescent light bulb like a bathroom night light. 1 kilowatt (1,000 watts) is equal ~ 1.3 HP, about the same energy output as a small lawn mower engine. The average household in the USA uses about 1 KW of electricity on an on-going basis if averaged over an entire year. 1 Megawatt (1 million watts) is enough electricity to power a small town. Large diesel locomotive engines generate in the 3 to 5 MW range. 1 Gigawatt (1 billion watts) is the size of a large central station power plant, and is enough energy to power about 1 million homes. 1 Terawatt (1 trillion watts) is energy on a continental scale. The total worldwide electricity demand is about 15 TW. Now to the real point of this podcast – I want to talk about carbon capture and storage, and the scale of the challenge this concept presents. To put it bluntly, the scale is bigger than huge, it’s even bigger than enormous. The amount of carbon dioxide gas released by coal and natural gas plants is planetary in scale. Let me describe what I mean by that. The US DOE estimates that US and Canada stationary power plants produce 3.8 billion tones of CO2...

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