Shade or Sunshine – Which One Wins?

Last week I was hanging out with some friends in Gunnison, Colorado. They like to travel for extended periods in the winter and while we were discussing the particulars of winterizing homes in cold climates, they posed the following question:
“Is it better (i.e. more energy efficient) to leave the blinds up while we are gone for three months or leave them down?”

This is an interesting question in that Gunnison can get quite cold in the winter with temps as low as -25 to -30 F and at times setting the overnight low in the lower-48 states. Conversely, they don’t call this place “sunny Gunny” for nothing. Many winter days reveal clear blue skies at an elevation of 7,703 feet even if there is a blanket of snow on the ground. A person can readily feel the warmth coming through south-facing windows even on cold winter days.

My friends were pleased when I responded that “I can calculate that for you. Give me a day or two.”

More than a year ago, I had worked with a fellow grad student at Western State Colorado University (the university president has since instituted a name change removing “State” from the present moniker) to develop the Gunnison Valley Home Energy Quick Assessment Tool or GVHEQAT for short. Some key features of this tool (designed for quick, no-cost home energy analysis for families who can’t afford a $300 home energy assessment) are an hourly temperature profile for a full year
(using a representative year from the past 15 using the ASOS portal at )
that then calculates heating degree hours based on a 68 degree F thermostat setting for the entire year, plus calculations of heat loss through windows based on the number of windows at various sizes along with their R-values.

Currently, my friends raise their blinds in the morning and lower them in the evening to take advantage of passive solar gain while insulating against overnight temperatures. Using the GVHEQAT tool, I calculated that their three south-facing windows have a surface area of 92.4 square feet or 8.58 square meters. Their windows are double pane with low-e (emissivity) glass which has an R-value of 2.7. Additional thermal insulation of cellular blinds ads 0.8 to the R-value. So, using the GVHEQAT tool, I calculated the heat loss through these three windows for three months with the windows only (no blinds) and with the double pane low-e windows plus cellular blinds.

68 Deg thermostat
Using blinds results in 2130 kWh per year and 897kWh for Jan-Mar
Not using blinds results in 2761 kWh per year and 1163 kWh for Jan-Mar
Difference is 266 kWh for 92.4sq (8.58 sq meters)

Thus, we knew our heat loss from not using the blinds on those three windows was 266 kWh for the 3 months my friends expect to be traveling. Next, to calculate the solar gain, I built a simple energy model using HOMER Pro Microgrid Analysis Tool ( ). I simulated a grid-connected home with a single 1-kilowatt solar array since full sun is considered to be 1,000 watts per square meter (1,000 watts being 1 kilowatt). The HOMER Pro tool is agnostic as to the efficiency of a solar PV module, so the fact that a 1kW array would take up more than 1 square meter is irrelevant for the purpose of this analysis. Further, the fact that Gunnison’s higher elevation and resulting thinner atmosphere does not skew the results in that this increased solar irradiance is accounted for in the NASA Surface Meteorology and Solar Energy Database from which HOMER pulled the hourly Gunnison solar global horizontal irradiance data set for a typical year.

Using HOMER Pro, I configured the 1kW array to be vertical south-facing just as the windows on the home are. After running the model, I exported the 8,760 hourly values of the energy model that included the total output of the 1kW array which is now representative of the watts per square meter of irradiance for 1 square meter of area that is vertical south-facing.

Pulling this data into excel, I multiplied the hourly 1 square meter of solar irradiance by the 8.58 square meters of wind surface area and then multiplied that value by 30% (equivalent to 2.574 kW of gain at 1,000 watts per square meter) to simulate the energy loss through the double pane low-e glass (the remaining 70% being reflected away by the glass layers). Adding up the hourly solar gain for three months generates 783.546 kWh of solar gain. The results are as follows:

Jan-Mar solar gain through windows at 30% gain is 783kWh
Net offset of leaving windows open is a benefit of 783kWh-266kWh equals 517 kWh
517*8.3 cents per kWh equals $42.91 benefit with thermostat at 68.

So the quick answer for my friends is to leave the window shades up while they are gone. Gunnison’s exceptional solar gain makes the choice obvious. If this were an older home with single pane windows, the heat loss through R-value 1.2 windows would be more severe and the 0.8 R-value of cellular blinds would have a higher percentage effect on reducing heat loss. Given the exceptional solar resource in Gunnison, it probably still makes sense to leave the blinds up, but with a lower net benefit.

My friends are actually thinking of lowering their thermostat (by the way, this house is heated with electricity as opposed to natural gas) to 40 degrees F, so the revised calculations are as follows:
40 Deg thermostat
Using blinds results in 763 kWh per year and 432 for Jan-Mar
Not using blinds results in 989 kWh per year and 560 kWh for Jan-Mar
Difference is 128 kWh for 92.4sq (8.58 sq meters)

Jan-Mar solar gain through windows at 30% gain is 783kWh
Net offset of leaving windows open is a benefit of 783kWh-128kWh equals 655 kWh
655*8.3 cents per kWh equals $54.36 cents with thermostat at 40.

And of course, if you are home to enjoy a Gunnison winter, open those window shades every morning and drop them down after the sunset to maximize heat gain and minimize nighttime heat losses.


Solar GHI

Solar Irradiance Trend at 90 deg South-Facing
This graph shows the solar irradiance in kilowatts per square meter for a vertical south-facing area. As the sun climbs higher in the summer, the angle of incidence results in lower solar gain at this orientation.
Solar Gain Trend
Results in brown as for 8.58 square meters of south facing windows.

Solar Gain Calcs



Eclipse 2017 – Sun/Moon Respond to Hype with Epic Mic Drop

After more than a year of waiting, Eclipse Day 2017 had arrived. Hearing stories of people getting skunked by the weather had me apprehensive for the past week as the long-range and then short-term forecasts tried to estimate the probability of clear skies. In reality, weather systems are optimized to predict temperature, wind speed and precipitation. Cloud cover – especially the kinds that can disrupt eclipse viewing – are more difficult to predict and can be very site-specific. Arriving in Kearney, Neb. the day before the eclipse, my friend Brad and I toyed with the option of driving further west toward Scottsbluff or even into Wyoming.

Brad noticed that there was a state recreation area just east of the town of Ravenna, about 30 miles from Kearney. Ravenna was right on the center line of totality, adding 36 more seconds of total eclipse than Kearney. The state recreation area wanted people to rent 4 full nights of camping at $25 per night, plus swimming was prohibited in the water due to algae. The town park in Ravenna ended up being more accommodating and included a greeting by the mayor herself and a local family delivering free ice cream to the visitors. By nightfall, all we could do was sleep, wait and hope for good weather in the morning.

I woke up at about 5am to a hungry cat. The skies were mostly clear with some high, thin cirrus clouds and some thicker clouds lower on the horizon to the southeast. I started logging weather data at 8:27am to see if clouds, winds aloft or other factors would indicate conditions improving or degrading for our viewing. I also tracked temperature and humidity (using a handheld Kestrel unit) to see how they would change during partial and total coverage as well as solar irradiance (global horizontal irradiance and direct normal irradiance) using a handheld pyranometer.

Eclipse Data Table

About an hour before the start of the eclipse, the clouds dissipated further, almost ensuring our good fortune. (Nashville, Tenn. viewers were not so lucky when a large cloud formed right overhead before totality.) It took about 45 minutes before the temperature started to drop. At about 65-percent coverage, we all started to notice the change in the quality of light despite it being sunny. There had been a steady stream of viewers at my Celestron 6SE telescope, which afforded views of sunspots and the very first hint of coverage at 11:33am. A few folks were able to take some decent photos through the telescope eyepiece with their cell phones.

iPhone through telescope - start of eclipse

Around 12:40, I switched out the eyepiece for my Canon 50D DSLR camera. At around 12:55, the sliver of sun became thinner and thinner and Venus appeared overhead.  The ambiance portended something ominous was imminent. At 12:57, there was a noticeable shift as the sun blinked out and the corona appeared overhead.

Total Eclipse with flare

The next two and a half minutes were the fastest and most surreal I have experienced. Everyone present was in awe. I snapped photos as fast as I could and when I thought I had enough good ones through the telescope, I disconnected the camera and attached a zoom lens.

Solar Flare 1a

Having limited success with photos at this stage, I remembered some advice to not focus too much on photography for your first eclipse, but to rather just take in the experience. For the final 30-40 seconds that’s what I did. Soon beads of light appeared around the edge and it was over. Rapidly growing light that caught my eye through the open end of my telescope. Oh shit! I quickly grabbed my solar filter and placed it over my telescope before the growing sunlight could cook my secondary mirror.

We watched the shadow “halo” pass to the east and most people just stood there speechless. Did that really happen or was it a figment of our imagination? What we witnessed was in the realm of the archaic use of the word “sublime” where what was seen was beyond description. I was struck by the thought that even though I am well versed in science and understood what I was viewing, the experience was nonetheless mind-blowing. I have a greater empathy for how cultures of limited science knowledge might have reacted to what I just saw.

My deepest condolences for those viewers who traveled only to get skunked by clouds and rain. For those of you who lived within a few hours of totality and chose to watch your 90-plus percent coverage, you have no concept of how much you have short-changed yourself. This was a skip school, call in sick, postpone the wedding kind of event.

I’m already planning for the next eclipse.
Lessons learned on my first eclipse:
1) Don’t leave your remote shutter release in Alaska when you keep your digital SLR in Colorado.
2) Don’t try to take your camera off the telescope and transfer to a tripod or handheld with a zoom lens – time wasted.
3) I have a better idea of exposure bracketing I want to do next time to catch the full extent of the corona.
4) Dedicate a second telescope for people to view while I take photos. This is why I have no images from earlier in the eclipse.
5) People of all ages really liked the opportunity to view through a telescope.
6) Definitely no infrared signal from the sun during totality. The atmosphere blocks any detectable signal.
7) Logging meteorological data, including solar irradiance, is a good thing. It’s a bit time consuming, so I may take a data logger with instruments next time and do 1-minute or finer resolution.
8) Glad I took 30 seconds to stop taking photos and just stand there taking in the experience.
9) 2 min 36 seconds never seemed so fast.
10) Viewing is a crap shoot. We lucked out. The forecast had 40-60% chance of clouds and our coverage was way less.
11) During the entire eclipse, there was no politics. Just everyone living in the moment – especially during totality.
12) I can understand how non-scientific cultures might freak out during an eclipse. I knew what was happening and it still blew me away.
13) The people of Ravenna, Neb. couldn’t have been nicer. Great place to view, camp out and chill.
14) Always show up a day or two to your viewing area to size up the weather patterns, scope out places to set up your gear and be willing to reposition if needed.

Looking forward to 2024.

Look for solar flares in a few of the images below.


Ranch Sunrise

After the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virgina yesterday, I needed something positive today. My cat woke me up early to be fed and I decided to walk outside. Today I am grateful for the peace and solitude here at the ranch while I grieve for my rainbow of family and friends. Peace to all.

(Right click, then open link in new tab to see full size images.)

Alaska: Let’s Cut Zuckerberg Some Slack

Facebook’s CEO visited Alaska for the long holiday weekend and some Alaskans are quick to criticize him for either political reasons or because he is naïve about how things really work here in Alaska. Here’s why I think we all (including the official state curmudgeon Craig Medred, who sometimes isn’t happy unless he has something to complain about) need to cut him some slack and take back any criticism we’ve had about his shared experiences in our beloved state.


1 – He’s a visitor and we should be the utmost in gracious hosts to everyone who travels here. I feel like we’ve forgotten this overarching golden rule of being blessed to live in the Great Land.


2 – It’s not like he came up here and criticized us. He honestly shared what he thought were positive impressions of our land and our people.


3 – He took the time to meet local people and learn about salmon, First Alaskans and our independent lifestyle. Some visitors just go to remote lodges and only rub shoulders with other rich people. Alaskans answered his questions and explained how things work from their perspective. Was he supposed to suspect the credibility of the Alaska Natives he met and what they told him? Maybe some of our terminology doesn’t translate to people who live in the Bay Area. Facebook is a social media site – not a journalism source, so let’s forgive him if some of the details are wrong…or at least not in agreement with your understanding if you feel you are the expert on all things Alaskan.


4 – The PFD is unique in the US. While it is not exactly a universal basic income, it is structured in the same basic manner (an endowment invested in the market with proceeds shared amongst the citizens). While much of our PFD comes from the reinvestment, the original endowment was funded by natural resource extraction – oil (which is considered a natural resource according to my ECON 370 class). We have legislators in Juneau who don’t understand how the PFD isn’t supposed to work and they’ve been here a lot longer than 5 days. No matter how you feel about a UBI, the folks who know the most about our country’s skewed distribution of wealth are the very rich and the very poor.


5 – The salmon dipnet harvest is unlike any other state’s public fishing program. It is indeed a form of subsistence harvest not to be confused with Indigenous hunting and fishing rights and you have to establish residency to participate. While his description was rudimentary, we do in fact have state supported fisheries for king salmon in Ship creek and pink salmon in Prince William Sound. To compare our public fishing programs to what you get for your fishing license in the lower-48 is to severely misrepresent what we’ve got going on here.


6 – He doesn’t begin to understand the intricacies of ANCSA and Native Corporations and neither do you. You and I could go downtown and pick 10 residents at random and ask them questions such as which Native corporations have and have not extended shareholder status to children and grandchildren, when the original shareholder cutoff date was, what have been the payouts for the various corporations, how does revenue sharing work and what is the legal precedent that recognizes Native American land claims and we wouldn’t get more than 4 people who could answer them all correctly without looking it up. The only reason I know any of these was from weeks of research for grad school and I still have to do an online search.


7 – We are better than this. Whether you just got your Alaska driver’s license last month or you’ve lived here all your life, we are ambassadors of the best place in the world. Smile and nod when visitors get things a bit wrong. Thank them for taking the time to visit and ask about our culture. Offer them a beer or smoked salmon or some berry ice cream and remember this may be their only time to see what we get to spend our lives experiencing.

Salmon Policy in Western Alaska Resurrecting the Chinook

Abstract—Chinook (king) salmon runs have experienced dramatic declines in numbers since 2007 across all of Alaska with more extended deficits in some regions of the state. Further, the average size of chinook salmon has been declining over the past three decades. The economic and cultural impacts of continued low runs threaten the way of life for many people in the state. Unfortunately, the root causes for these declines have yet to be isolated. Policy changes are proposed with two key focuses: immediate containment to protect the runs from complete collapse and scientific initiatives to identify the sources of decline and propose effective solutions.

For the complete paper, please see the PDF report.

Chinook Salmon Policy Paper – RStromberg

Chinook Trend

Trawl Closures

Salmon Migration


How to make Java executables from Dr Java without pulling your hair out

Let me start by saying I like my hair. It may be greying heavily, but it’s still nice and I’d like to keep it for as long as possible.

About a year ago I had my first need to actually make an executable file from my Java code rather than simply run the code in my Dr Java editor/compiler. Unfortunately, this is one of the two skills that are rarely taught in formal training – much to my consternation. The other key skill each programming language curriculum must have, but rarely does, is learning to import data from files and export to files. Training focuses on how to do stinking Do/While/If/For statements that any student either already knows or can figure out in short order. Instructors/Trainers: please do your students a huge favor and teach these skills in your very first lesson when we learn how to print “Hello World” on the screen.

I’m guessing quite a few instructors don’t actually know how to do these basic necessary tasks and is the reason they are not taught. I’ve observed this with Python as well. While a year ago I was getting quite frustrated, screaming at my computer and search engine that surely I must not be the only person who has needed to learn to do this and making accusations about the moms of those who posted 1) solutions run using the Command prompt that didn’t meet the original poster’s needs or 2) instructions that did not in fact work…today, your good buddy Rich is going to show you how to convert that Java code into an executable .Jar file (Java archive file) that can be run from any Windows folder. While this is not a difficult skill to acquire, it does take a series of steps that until now have not been well documented and if not followed to a “T” will result in utter frustration and failure. (To be completely honest here, Rice University used to have a web page showing exactly how to do this. I happily discovered the page after several hours of frustration online and emails to people I felt should have known how to do this. Unfortunately, when I returned to my bookmark last week, Rice Uni had removed the page and it was not on the Way Back History archive. I was back to square 1 – or 1.5 as I eventually was able to deconstruct what I did a year earlier from some saved files and some trial and error.)

For my current application, I had to write some code that takes historic weather data from across Canada and converts it into something I can process in Excel or R without spending 15-20 minutes cleaning up in Excel due to a few annoying formatting choices by the data archivers. The data system is called CWEEDS and the files are in a text, WY2 format.

Anyway, for my future benefit if nothing else, here is my step-by-step guide in PDF format including “riveting” screen grabs.

Dr Java executables step by step

Whittier Heat Wave

Temperature is a relative measurement. Although quantitative with respect to certain physical properties, humans experience it in qualitative/subjective manner. So it was the great Whittier Heat Wave of 2017 occurred on June 25. I’ve paddled on similar days in previous years. This Alaskan has been known to overheat in 65 degrees Fahrenheit after kayaking for 6 or 7 hours. I find myself hugging the north-facing shore, hoping that the cliffs provide some respite from the high sun while sparing me the occasional rock fall that could ruin a perfectly good day.

Knowing that there would be a minus 4-foot tide at 9 am, I rose a bit before 4 am to ensure passage through the 5:30 am Anton Anderson Tunnel  which alternates east bound and west bound every 30 or so minutes. I was on the water by 6 am wearing a thin polypropylene layer that was shed within 45 minutes. The ocean surface was smooth as glass and I was the only boat moving for the first hour. And then the Whittier weekend rush hour began.

All manner of motor craft ply the waters of Prince William Sound on the weekend – more so on sunny weekends. The noise of engines and waves & swells from wakes are part of the experience. This is the price of kayaking the nearest navigable seas to Anchorage.

My ultimate goal was to get to the site of an old shipwreck in Shotgun Cove by low tide to check up on a white plumed anemone that I first discovered 5 or 6 years ago. Sure enough, it was still there, but today’s sun kept it closed up rather than extended with tentacles flowing in the current.

Another creature I always check for in Shotgun Cove is a clear nudibranch (sea slug) that I’ve only seen once before. While paddling over to the eel grass shallows at the south end of the cove, I started noticing some long red objects on the sea floor as my kayak glided over the shallows. Slowing to first check with my waterproof camera and then getting out to wade to some near the shore, I encountered by first sea cucumbers in the wild, interspersed with leather sea stars and sea urchins. All told, I saw several dozen of these echinoderms.

Closer to the eel grass, I discovered a dozen or more tan plumed anemones – also closed up in the summer sun. Paddling over one, a small hooded nudibranch caught my eye. They are clear except for some visible, tan internal organs. Unfortunately, by time I paddled back across this spot, it had crawled out of sight. Walking the shore line, I did encounter one more stranded by the low tide. Neither were close to the fist-plus size I had discovered years earlier. I would guess that young nudibranchs abound this time of the season.

Other sea creatures seen today included a few lion’s mane jellyfish,

several hundred leather stars, a hundred or so purple ochre sea stars and a few sunflower sea stars. Several hundred green urchins were in the shallows – a favorite food of leather stars and sea otters. Higher up in he intertidal zone, there were a few dozen burrowing anemones – both brown and green.

On the paddle back, I saw 6 bald eagle – no doubt waiting for the pink salmon that should be returning to spawn within another week or two. Oddly, I haven’t encountered and seals, sea lions or sea otters during my recent trips out of Whittier. Their food must be elsewhere at the moment.

How to save the coal industry from itself

This is a paper I wrote in April 2016 as a post-undergrad filling out some gaps in my education prior to starting grad school at Western State Colorado University. The problems identified here and solutions proposed are still pertinent today with no measurable change in the coal industry. As an engineer with 20+ years of experience, I fully believe we can fix all the problems with coal. The barriers to progress reside in ownership and management who continue to operate a 50-year-old business model while competing technologies kick their ass. If money was spent to drive new technology rather than blaming state and federal clean air/water regulations and using the courts to shirk their social responsibility, coal workers could be employed in good-paying jobs without risking their short- and long-term health.

The coal industry has three choices:
1) Change their business model.
2) Bring in talent from other industries and government labs to drive the new business model.
3) Continue the slow, lingering death of their industry.

An Analysis of the Sustainable Future of Coal Energy



Rich Stromberg / ENVS100


Abstract—The mining of coal and its use for power generation faces significant challenges that must be solved if the coal industry honestly expects to flourish over the coming decades. A change in strategy from marketing hype, lobbying elected officials and fighting clean air legislation in the courts is needed if this technology is to experience anything other than a slow painful death due not to climate change concerns, but simply by failing to compete in an open market on price and quality of product.

I.  The Current State of Coal in the US and Colorado

A major benefit of coal as an energy source is that it is a widely-abundant resource in the United States. Known, demonstrated reserves are 478 billion short tons[1] as of January 2015.[2] This represents 261 years of US coal production at 2013 levels.[3]  Coal power plays a significant part of the local energy mix in Gunnison, Colorado making up 52.1 percent of the power purchased[4] and conversely 99 percent of CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions or 40,868 tons of CO2 during 2015. (See Table A-1.) Across Colorado, coal accounts for 60 percent of the electricity generated (2014 data).[5]

In the US, slightly more than a third of the coal mines are underground while 64 percent are surface mines. In 2014, 345 underground mines in the US produced 354,704 short tons of coal while 613 surface mines produced 643,721 short tons.[6] The number of operating mines in 2013 (1,032) decreased by 7.1 percent in 2014 (958[7]) and the number of employees decreased 6.8 percent from 80,396 in 2013 to 74,931 in 2014 while the actual production was up 1.5 percent over the same time period.[8] The 60-year production trend shown in Figure 1 demonstrates that renewable energy portfolio standards in 29 states[9] have not reduced coal demand, rather growth in US energy demand has been met by renewable energy sources.[10] Preliminary data for 2015 reflects a drop in coal production, attributed to a drop in natural gas prices – a key competitor in the energy production market. This is an important factor to remember later in this analysis.

Figure 1 – US Coal Production 1950 – 2015 (Source: EIA Coal Data Browser –

In Colorado, eight active coal mines currently produce around 25 million short tons of coal compared with an all-time high of 40 million short tons in 2004. All mines are located in the western part of the state and generated 2,175 jobs in the state during 2013.[11] Median mine worker wages in 2012 ranged from $22 to $29 per hour based on specific job skills and duties.[12] (See Appendix Figure A1 and Table A2)

Despite being an integral part of the state’s and nation’s energy portfolio, the mining and combustion of coal comes with significant negative environmental impacts. Mountaintop removal sends pollutants downstream impacting critical aquatic habitats. Acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines. Methane (CH4), a major greenhouse gas, must be vented from underground mines to ensure worker safety. In 2013, methane emissions from coal mines accounted for about 9% of total U.S. methane emissions.[13] Pound for pound, the impact of methane on global warming is 25 times greater than CO2 because the molecule is both larger and corresponds more efficiently with the wavelengths of infrared light that feed the greenhouse effect.[14][15] On the combustion side, sulfur dioxide (SO2), contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses, nitrogen oxides (NOx) contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses (as do particulate matter) and CO2 is released – the primary greenhouse gas emitted worldwide (See Appendix Figure A-2). Mercury and other heavy metals linked to neurological and developmental damage in humans and animals is also released. Fly ash and bottom ash are residues created when coal is burned at power plants. By law, most of these emissions are captured and stored near power plants or placed in landfills. Pollution leaching from ash storage and landfills into groundwater and the rupture of several large impoundments of ash are environmental concerns.[16]

Other detractors related to coal power generation include its inability to quickly throttle up and down to match the second-by-second electrical demand on a power grid.[17][18]  Coal plant output varies over the course of an hour or two while natural gas plants (especially the combined-cycle variety) can follow the load second by second. Natural gas turbine facilities can run at low levels relative to their maximum output capacity with minimal problems while low-loading coal plants and power cycling daily versus annually increases preventative maintenance costs and results in greater unplanned outages.[19] Even modern wind turbines have the ability to implement power set point control where the turbines and entire wind farms can be adjusted real-time to match the instantaneous electrical demand on the grid.[20][21] Wind and solar plants have the added advantage of providing low-voltage ride through and frequency ride through services to the power grid that would otherwise trip off conventional generators during a lightning event or sudden loss of a distant generation station.[22]

II.  Capitalism – Cause of an Impending Demise and the Best Hope for a Solution

In 2014, James River Coal Company (more than $800 million in debt) was among at least a dozen U.S. coal-producers to enter bankruptcy since 2003, according to Fitch Ratings and data compiled by Bloomberg Finances LP.[23] “A fracking boom has glutted the market with natural gas, luring some electric utilities away from coal. The electric-power sector will use 3 percent less coal next year and isn’t expected to recover to 2011 levels by 2040, the last year of a U.S. Energy Department forecast period.” [24] Four more US coal companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Overall, nearly 40 percent of US coal companies have fallen since 2004, although most of the assets have simply been acquired by other coal companies in a pattern of consolidation across the industry.[25] Although the mines and equipment continue to operate, an impact that fails to show up in US EIA statistics is the impact to health insurance and pensions of retired miners and their widows/widowers such as the Patriot Coal bankruptcy filing in 2015.[26]

“’When it comes to bankruptcy, the ones that lose the most are the workers and the retirees,’ said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. A few years ago, Patriot Coal, a spinoff of Peabody Energy, tried to cut benefits for thousands of unionized workers. After many rounds of negotiations, Patriot’s estimated $1.3 billion dollars in accrued benefits were reduced to a pool of just $400 million dollars to fund ongoing healthcare costs. That future of that account is now in question because Patriot declared bankruptcy again in May [2015].”[27] In another case, Alpha Natural Resources has asked a judge to cut the insurance benefits of 5,000 non-union retirees.

While President Obama’s 2015 executive order creating the Clean Power Plan through the EPA has a definite impact on the future of existing coal power plants if states are required to meet greenhouse gas emissions limits on electrical generation, capitalist principles have been in play for more than a decade to all but guarantee the demise of the coal industry. Harvard professor Clayton Chistensen coined the phrase “disruptive technology” to describe companies that produce “products or services that are too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market…an innovation that is disruptive allows new consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money…Characteristics of disruptive businesses…can include:  lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics…creating space at the bottom of the market for new disruptive competitors to emerge.”[28] Examples of such disruptive technologies include personal computers displacing mainframe and mini computers, laptops and surface computers displacing desktop machines, cell phones displacing landlines and smart phones/tablets displacing computers and cable/satellite TV boxes.[29]

Much of the installed coal generation capacity was built in the 1960s-1980s for a grid that operated in a different fashion under a different fuel source environment and different air quality standards (even accounting for acid rain mitigation). See Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Coal plants retired in 2015 versus age of existing fleet.

Imagine an electronics or computer chip manufacturer attempting to compete in today’s market using plants and equipment built in in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Weak management practices that prefer cost minimization of aging assets not perfectly aligned with changing power characteristics of modern grids, has opened the door for innovators to displace companies who lack visionary forward thinking. Why would a coal industry executive operating single-cycle generating facilities at 34 percent fuel efficiency[30] while emitting both short term and long term pollutants ever expect to compete in a free market against a natural gas executive operating combined-cycle generating facilities at 45-55 percent fuel efficiency[31] and half the harmful emissions?[32]

Next, add an innovative natural gas exploration and production industry that is constantly looking to compete on the world market[33]. Natural gas extraction from shale increased from 0.39 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2000 to 4.87 tcf in 2010. The success of fracturing techniques has led to increasing reserves (see Figure A-3 in appendix) which has put the industry in an oversupply condition significantly reducing fuel costs for natural gas power plants. The gas supplies and low fuel prices are predicted by EIA to extend to 2020 and beyond. This combined with high coal mine production statistics through 2013/4 deflate the argument that clean energy policies are the cause of coal’s demise. Free-market capitalism is all it has taken to put the coal industry in jeopardy.

Further, consider wind energy development over the past 25 years. Continued research and development and the capitalistic rise, fall, acquisition, bankruptcy and innovation of the industry have moved it into the position of the fastest growing form of renewable energy in the US from ~ 0.25 percent of total electricity generation in 2000 to ~ 4.6 percent in 2015. See Figure 3. The wind industry and US Department of Energy have a long history of cooperation which continues in the current Wind Vision[34] plan that extends to 2030.

Figure 3
– Growth in US wind energy generation. Note that intermittent availability of the federal investment tax credit on renewables affects year to year growth rates along with longer term weather patterns to a lesser degree. (Source:

A popular business tool used by renewable energy power producers is the long term power purchase agreement (PPA). Industry improvement in power output per turbine, reduced operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, reduced cost of manufacturing and reduced cost of installation has resulted in drastic reductions per megawatt hour of electricity. Wind energy developers offer 25-year pricing at a known fixed rate since capital expenditures, O&M and fuel costs are known over the entire period. See Figure 4. Not only are conventional PPAs (between an independent power producer and electrical utilities or cooperatives) becoming more commonplace, but corporate PPAs have emerged over the past few years where large companies such as Google contract to purchase their power directly from a renewable energy provider. In some cases, these large corporations actually invest in the renewable assets, providing a new source of capital/risk to invest in the technology expansion.[35] Given the nature of wind energy, fuel costs are zero – another capitalistic, economic advantage over coal.

Figure 4 – US wind PPA trend from LBL 2014 Wind Technologies Market Report showing power sales prices in 2014 and 2015 below coal prices.

The US Energy Information Administration projects electricity generation costs out to 2020. Table 1 shows the current estimates with wind energy levelized cost of energy (LCOE) at $73.6 per megawatt-hour (MWh) and natural gas ranging from $72.6-$75.2/MWh without carbon capture[36]. Conventional coal is $20 higher at $95.1. If advanced coal gasification in its current form and/or carbon capture systems (CCS) for coal and natural gas are pursued, the cost picture for the coal industry gets even worse.

Table 1 – EIA estimates for LCOE of US electrical generation plants entering service in 2020.

III.  Solution for a Sustainable Coal Industry

As laid out above, the scope of problems facing the coal industry are squarely in the realm of basic economics, engineering and physics. When the wind industry began, their technology was not cost competitive, but incremental development and focus of industry and government labs have chiseled away at the technical and economic challenges to produce a quality solution to our country’s energy needs. Fortunately for the coal industry, a roadmap exists for technology to greatly mitigate their environmental cost.[37] While the current clean coal technology does not meet the economic challenges of competing against natural gas and wind, neither did those latter industries begin with an economic advantage. Market advantage was gained with sound, capitalistic business practices of innovation and incremental improvement.

Several key initiatives will fix many of the problems associated with coal power plants, which in turn will allow demand for coal production to increase, helping the mining industry. The first of these initiatives is related to the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment enacted by Congress requiring major industry emitters to reduce pollutants such as mercury, non-mercury metallic toxics, acid gases (NOx and Sox), and organic air toxics including dioxin.[38] In 1990, three industry sectors made up approximately two-thirds of total U.S. mercury emissions: medical waste incinerators, municipal waste combustors, and power plants. By 2005, the first two sectors had reduced their mercury emissions by 96 and 98 percent, respectively, while power plants had only achieved a 10 percent reduction.[39] Twenty years after the 1990 Amendments, 40 percent of electric generation units still have not implemented controls to meet those standards, so a finalized rule was published in 2011. Requiring all plants to implement these controls levels the playing field among all coal power plants and can be achieved with widely-available technology that has been proven for decades: Selective Catalytic Reduction with Flue-gas Desulfurization, Activated Carbon Injection (ACI), ACI with Fabric Filter (FF) or Electrostatic Precipitators.[40][41] In the late ‘90s, this technology was referred to as “Clean Coal” in that it reduces harmful emissions, but it should not be confused with a newer version of the term that implies reduction of greenhouse gases.

The second initiative is a larger, multifaceted effort known as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). It consists of three key stages. Stage one gasifies the coal by heating it in a steam environment to create a synthesis gas (or syngas) made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO).[42] The hydrogen is then burned to make electricity (or can be used as a transportation fuel) while the CO is extracted prior to combustion and converted to CO2, compressed and stored underground. To improve the percent capture of CO and CO2, air, which is 78% nitrogen, is fed into an air separation unit that sends only oxygen to the gasifier.[43] Because the gas has higher concentrations of CO2 and is at higher pressures, pre-combustion CO2 extraction is much more efficient than post-combustion.[44]  The next stage is similar to a combined-cycle natural gas plant in that waste heat from the hydrogen combustion/generation process is used to turn a separate steam generator. The final stage captures CO2 from the combustion process, compresses and stores it.

Figure 5 – Diagram of an IGCC Power Plant (Source: National Energy Technology Laboratory)

The third initiative is carbon sequestration where the captured, compressed gas is either stored underground permanently or used in commercial applications such as enhanced oil recovery where CO2 is pumped into older oil reservoirs to increase the productivity of those wells.[45] Previously, water was injected for this purpose.

While the physics of these solutions is relatively straightforward, the engineering and implementation has proven challenging. Of the three rounds of funding for the Clean Coal Power Initiative, many project applicants have withdrawn or the projects have been suspended. A major project from the second round of funding, Southern Company’s Kemper project in Mississippi, has experienced delays and major budget overruns from an original estimate of $1.8 billion to $6.2 billion.[46] Several factors have led to these delays. Construction was begun with only 20 percent of the design complete[47] which required significant work to be dismantled and rebuilt. Instead of building pilot projects to prove out each individual part of the larger CCPI initiative, a full-meal-deal project for a large (580-megawatt) project was funded. This creates the risk that problems with any single part of the integrated solution could keep/delay the plant from functioning and prevent valuable learning on the individual components. Canada has a post-combustion carbon capture system working as a retrofit solution on an existing 110-megawatt power plant. Breaking the first phases of funding into proving individual components in smaller, pilot applications would allow for faster information cycles and smaller budgets. An additional impactor on project success is arbitrary deadlines tied to federal funding. Southern Company had to repay $130 million in federal funding when it missed a 2014 deadline.[48][49] DOE program managers should have foreseen this delay and Congress should allow for more flexibility in high-risk research and development projects.

IV.  Conclusions

There is a solution path for the coal industry’s suite of problems. This path is not without risks. Technology takes many years and even decades to develop. This is particularly challenging for an industry that has operated under a business model of squeezing the lowest possible costs out of 40- and 50-year-old technology. This means that two full generations of workforce have come and gone since any driving R&D has been conducted. There is no institutional knowledge to drive the needed improvement, so the industry must start from scratch.

The long history of avoiding the environmental costs associated with the coal mining and coal power generation industries has bred a business culture that is void of technological innovation. Problems such as metal and acid pollutants, worker safety and global climate change are seen from a cost-minimization perspective to be addressed in the courts or lobbied to the government in biased/politicized/ideological terms. Successful companies create new products and new business channels/markets. The coal industry has simply focused on economies of scale which Christensen has argued leaves the company vulnerable to disruptive technologies.

Economics and free-market capitalism alone will sink the coal industry if it does not innovate. Bankruptcies will continue and workers/retirees will continue to be underrepresented as creditors as will the reclamation responsibilities of these industrial facilities. One radical solution government could take is to step in on bankruptcies and take over the assets/facilities as the new owner/investor. Fire all the management. Keep the workers (operators, technicians, engineers) and install new management from the energy labs who understand technology development. The rationale behind this approach is that the government is going to end up responsible for the medical and welfare benefits for these employees anyway, along with cleanup of superfund sites. We might as well take full responsibility for industry’s failures and risk turning them into successful business ventures that can then be sold at a profit.

If that risk is deemed too great, and industry doesn’t see the proverbial “light”, we should pull the current funding and focus it on training and relocation of the workers who have dedicated their efforts in good faith. Helping them qualify for more stable jobs and providing incentives for new industry to move to the workers or workers to relocate to jobs would be a better use of the public’s money and time.


V.  Appendix


Table A-1: 2015 City of Gunnison Energy Source Mix – Source: City of Gunnison Electrical Department

Figure A-1: Coal Mines in Colorado (Source:

Table A-2: Coal Mines in Colorado (Source:

Figure A-2: Coal impacts in overall CO2 emissions (Source:

Figure A-3: Natural gas proven reserves in US





[1] 2,000 lbs. versus 2,200 lbs. for a standard ton.

[2] “U.S. Coal Reserves” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[3] “Coal Explained: How Much Coal is Left?” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. April 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[4] The contractual power purchase agreement between the City of Gunnison and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) consists of 30.7% hydroelectric power, 10.5% wind power and 52.1% coal power. Most of the electrons actually come from the nearby hydroelectric projects along the Gunnison River, but the city is still responsible for the 40,868 tons of CO2 emissions in 2015 from the coal power purchased. The city cannot simply decide to increase the amount of hydroelectric power purchased. This low-cost and clean energy is in high demand and is apportioned across all WAPA members.

[5] “Colorado State Profile and Energy Estimates” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. Dec. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[6] “Annual Coal Report 2014.” US Energy Administration – Coal. U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis, Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

[7] Number of mines does not include refuse recovery facilities.

[8] “Annual Coal Report 2014.” US Energy Administration – Coal. U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis, Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

[9] “STATE RENEWABLE PORTFOLIO STANDARDS AND GOALS” Jocelyn Durkay. Mar 23, 2016. National Conference of State Legislatures. May 1, 2016.

[10] This makes sense in that the RPS standards don’t require the shuttering of existing fossil fuel facilities, rather that renewable energy options are preferred when choosing new electrical generation.

[11] “Coal and jobs in the United States” The Center for Media and Democracy – Source Watch. Web. April 30, 2016.

[12]“2011-12 US coal mine wages” May 2012. Web. April 30, 2016.

[13] “Coal Explained: Coal and the Environment” US Energy Information Administration. Dec. 12, 2015. April 30, 2016.

[14] “Overview of Greenhouse Gases” / “Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Natural Sources”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2010 data. April 30, 2016.

[15] CH4 breaks down in the upper atmosphere in ~ 12 years and is a greater impactor of greenhouse warming during that period. CO2 molecules remain in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years, so over the long term CO2 has the largest effect on greenhouse warming.

[16] “Coal Explained: Coal and the Environment” US Energy Information Administration. Dec. 12, 2015. April 30, 2016.

[17] “Flexible Coal: Evolution from Baseload to Peaking Plant” Jaquelin Cochran, Debra Lew, Nikhil Kumar. Dec 2013. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Intertek. May 1, 2016.

[18] FYI, I have dealt with author, Debra Lew on a few energy issues in the past.

[19] “Flexible Coal: Evolution from Baseload to Peaking Plant” Jaquelin Cochran, Debra Lew, Nikhil Kumar. Dec 2013. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Intertek. May 1, 2016.

[20] “Technical considerations of excess energy in village hybrid power systems” Slide 10. Rich Stromberg, Cady Lister. Sep 2014. Alaska Energy Authority. May 1, 2016.

[21] You see what I did there? I cited myself.

[22] “Implementation of Voltage and Frequency Ride-Through Requirements in Distributed Energy Resources Interconnection Standards” Reigh Walling, Abraham Ellis, Sigifredo Gonzalez. April 2014. Sandia National Laboratories. May 1, 2016.

[23]“Coal Company Pain Accelerates as Bankruptcy Cases Rise”, Dawn McCarty, Sonja Elmquist and Phil Milford. July 2014. Bloomberg Finances LP. April 30, 2016.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Coal Companies Are Hurting. But the Coal Industry Is Not Dying.” Daniel Gross. Sep. 2015. Slate magazine. April 30, 2016.

[26] “Bankruptcy Lawyers Strip Cash from Coal Miners’ Health Insurance” Alec MacGillis. Oct. 2015. Pro Publica.  April 30, 2016.

[27] “As Coal Mining Continues, What Does Bankruptcy Mean On The Ground?” Leigh Paterson. March 2016. Inside Energy. April 30, 2016.

[28] “Disruptive Innovation” Clayton Chistensen. 2016. May 1, 2016

[29] The concept of disruptive technologies is well known throughout the high tech industry. During my 17 years at Intel Corporation, even front-line employees were educated in this concept and the need for constant innovation.

[30] 2014 heat rate for coal is 3412 Btus ideal rate divided by 10080 Btus –

[31] Ibid. Natural gas heat rate is 7,658 Btus.3412 div by 7658 = 45%. General Electrical aero-derivative gas turbines have been operating at 50-55% efficiency in US utilities for more than 5 years. The GE turbines at the Chugach Electric South Anchorage facility run so efficiently that they are the preferred generation other than low-cost hydroelectric power.

[32] 117 pounds of CO2 per million Btu of natural gas in a single cycle generator versus 205-228 pounds of CO2 for coal. If the natural gas is combusted in a combined cycle turbine, the CO2 levels for equivalent energy output are cut from 117 pounds down to about 60 percent of that number.

[33] As opposed to US coal plants that have a relatively captive customer base.

[34] Full disclosure: Jose Zayas, Office Director for US DOE Wind and Water Power Technologies knows me through my wind energy work.

[35] “Google, Walmart and corporate energy 2.0” Peter Mostow. October 13, 2015. GreenBiz. May 2, 2016.

[36] For combined cycle plants. Single cycle plant costs are so high in this chart that no rational business model would support construction of new single cycle natural gas facilities.

[37] Note that in this paper, the industry is not allowed to externalize their environmental costs as a solution as this is one of the reasons the coal industry is in its current predicament. If the industry had been required to cover the environmental costs all along, they wouldn’t have been incentivized for such sloppy business strategies. They would have addressed the problems as problems arose. Externalizing costs is one of the faults of unregulated capitalism (British economist Arthur Pigou ~ 1920.)

[38] “Cleaner Power Plants” US Environmental Protection Agency. Feb 2016.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] These technologies are commonplace and are discussed in WSCU’s PHYS 125 curriculum.



[44] Ibid.

[45] “CARBON STORAGE R&D” US DOE. May 2, 2016.

[46] “Billions over budget. Two years after deadline. What’s gone wrong for the ‘clean coal’ project that’s supposed to save an industry?” Darren Samuelsohn. May 26, 2015. Politico.

[47] This is just incompetence – on the part of the construction contractor, the financer, Southern Company and the DOE oversight managers. State of Alaska energy projects are not approved for construction funding until a 95 percent design has been reviewed and accepted by the agency. Some grantees have chosen to risk their own money before waiting for a full design and approval and these projects have left a long trail of mistakes and cost overruns.

[48] “Billions over budget. Two years after deadline. What’s gone wrong for the ‘clean coal’ project that’s supposed to save an industry?” Darren Samuelsohn. May 26, 2015. Politico.

[49] Some of these projects were funded with 2009 ARRA funds which were intended for shovel-ready projects. I personally witnessed a few of these projects where the shovel was ready, but not much else.

Twelve Intrepid Souls

The first sign for you, the reader, that I’ve been busy is that I haven’t made a blog post in 13 months. This, despite that there has been plenty to report on. My first sign that I’ve been way too busy came midway through the spring semester at Western State Colorado University when someone mentioned rafting the Colorado River and I thought to myself “yeah, I’d like to do that someday…” and then a moment later remembered that I had indeed already done that not five months prior. My life had become such a blur that a 24-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon – a trip of a lifetime – had been temporarily banished from my active memory because I was so busy taking 17 credit hours at school, auditing another 3-hour class and training with the college trail running team two-plus hours per day, six days a week.

(Cue Fairport Convention’s cover of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” )

I’d like to think that life has slowed down since then, but the fact that I’m just now getting around to editing the first half of my Grand Canyon photos on the one-year anniversary of our departure from Lee’s Ferry should tell you otherwise. I had a full summer of site prep and construction at the Alaska homestead along with some nice trail races and have been in grad school since June 1. I’m not going to even make an estimate of when I might share some of those experiences in the blog. For now, please enjoy the photos from my trip with 11 friends from Oct 29 – Nov 21, 2015.

Of our intrepid crew, I had known four people for many years (one for 11), several others were friends of friends (par for the course in Alaska that anyone you meet has a common friend) and three people who were from the lower-48. By the end, we would have a bond that would last a lifetime – even the couple that broke up six months after the trip. You can’t brave that many rapids, share kitchen and groover duties, pee off a raft, rescue a few swimmers, bathe in cold and silty waters, get on each other’s nerves, resolve your differences, share tales around the campfire and groove to Hall & Oates without building lasting bonds. Seriously, who wouldn’t enjoy spinning the raft while gliding down the river while Brian cranks up “I Can’t Go for That”? ( )

It’s strange, but I took an emotional hit when one of the couples on the trip broke up six months later. We’ve known each other a long time and yeah, I know these things happen on a regular basis. I myself am divorced. But it really brought home the Heraclitus quote (or misquote because I think this has become an evolving saying): “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We’ve all changed in some way over the past year – I quit my job and went back to college and am apparently crazy enough to be a collegiate athlete more than twice the age of my teammates. One of us has biked more than 8,000 miles – the first 2,000 before any of us realized she had decided to bike across the US. Two of us started biking in Denali National Park and made it down to Peru before months of gastric assaults warranted a respite. One of us has been biking throughout Europe and has become a big hit with a Lay’s distributor in Spain. Another just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

I guess it’s no wonder that we all were suited for our float down the Colorado. Twelve intrepid adventurers who pushed out from Lee’s Ferry a year ago with a modicum of naiveté. Twelve friends who survived Lava Falls and Bedrock Rapid (barely). Twelve friends who weren’t throwing punches when we hauled out at Pearce Ferry. We can never go back to that exact place in space and time, for our solar system continues to move throughout the Milky Way, the waters that we floated have long since passed through the canyon and evaporated on its way to Phoenix or Los Angeles, approximately 15% of our cells have regenerated, we’ve each been molded by additional life experiences and the finiteness of life has ticked away some 28 million seconds. New friends have been found, love has been lost, tears have been shed, along comes the frost. But a piece of each of us remains down in that canyon, a spiritual anchor to that span of 24 days. May I have the good fortune never to forget it a second time.

Peeking at a few pages ahead in the book of life

Mixed rain and snow is falling outside my window here in Anchorage just a day after I returned from a week in Colorado with sunny, blue skies. It’s been raining nonstop at least since I arrived 21 hours ago. The weather isn’t depressing, but it certainly lacks the power to entice me outside for a refreshing trail run or bike ride.

The past week is one of the first in a long while that I’ve been able to just kick back and relax rather than working on some project or training up for a race. Sure, I did some minimal chores around the ranch to minimize fire danger and make some repairs, but this visit I was able to take time to catch up with some neighbors and get in some scenic drives to take in the fall colors. Granted, I did run a 19.6-mile race ( ), but overall I felt able to relax more and cheat life by getting another week of summer temps and prime fall foliage.

Sometimes sustainability needs to be directed toward your own well-being and recharging your psyche. This past week was about exploring new places, making new acquaintance that could turn into friendships and sneaking a peak at a page or two from the next chapter of my life as I prepare to relocate to Gunnison County, Colorado after the first of the year to go back to school.

Here are some highlights of that next chapter, including fall colors near The Castles, Ohio Pass and Crested Butte plus views of the eclipse from the Windy SL Ranch.

Crested Butte aspens NE side

Red aspens