Archive for the 'Coal' Category

American Geoscience Institute’s Critical Issues Program

I recently learned about the American Geoscience Institute’s (AGI) Critical Issues Program, a “portal to decision-relevant, impartial, expert information from across the geosciences.”  This website is a potential place to look when you are searching for information related to issues at the intersection of geoscience and society, including energy, climate, water, mineral resources and natural hazards. In fact,writing that last sentence also made me think of  recent commentary I read titled “Why I am a geoscientist” in which the author, Erig Riggs, PhD, states that he loves being a geoscientist because it is an “area of science so directly relevant to the public.”

Energy topics covered include coal, geothermal energy, hydraulic fracturing, mineral resources, nuclear energy, oil and gas and renewable energy. The “Basics” section for each energy topic includes a brief summary that also describes why this topic matters to society and that explains how geoscience informs decisions about the particular topic.  The “Learn More” section includes links to introductory resources, frequently asked questions, related maps and visualizations along with references.  Resources featured come from the US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Geological Society of America, The National Academies and USGS and others.

Furthermore, AGI offers three earth science focused activities aligned to the Common Core English Language Arts standards and the Next Generation Science Standards that can be used to prepare grades 6-12 students to read and evaluate informational text.

Want to learn more? Check out AGI’s Center for Geoscience and Society.


Interactive infographics from the IEA | World’s energy system through 2050

IEA World Energy 2012

The World’s Energy System in 2012

The International Energy Association’s publication Energy Technology Perspectives 2015, is accompanied by a set of interactive visualizations that utilizes the data and figures behind its publication on energy technologies.  I am an advocate for having students visualize the entire energy system – the diversity of energy sources used to provide electricity to homes and industry and to power our various modes of transportation.  I also find it useful to examine how the system is changing over time as our demand for energy grows in light of the need to limit society’s carbon dioxide emissions. These interactive infographics from the IEA illustrate how the world’s energy system will evolve through 2050.  There are three parts to this online tool: an energy flow visualization, an emissions reduction visualization and a transportation visualization. Here I am featuring the energy flow visualization where the  user can hover over a specific energy source, transformation or end user to study a particular energy flow.  The diagram below shows the global energy flow for coal in 2012 and for 2050 (projected); one can easily compare the two graphics to see that coal use will decrease while global energy demand will increase.  Have you considered asking your students to evaluate and explain energy flow diagrams?

IEA World Energy 2012 and 2050_coal

Global energy flow for coal in 2012 and for 2050 (projected).

The emissions reduction visualization tool allows the user to assess how individual countries or regions can reduce carbon dioxide emissions via deployment of technologies and energy efficiency measures under three different warming scenarios (2°C, 4°C and 6°C). The transport visualization tool enables the user to select an “indicator” such as annual road energy consumption for a specific country, region or the world to visualize the extent to which the selected indicator needs to change to limit Earth’s average global temperature to either 2°C, 4°C or 6°C.  According to the IEA website. “the 2°C Scenario is the main focus of ETP 2015. It lays out the pathway to deploy an energy system and emissions trajectory consistent with what recent climate science research indicates would give at least a 50% chance of limiting average global temperature increase to 2°C.”  You can read the Executive Summary of the ETP 2015 here.

And if you want to read more about energy flow diagrams, check out this post.

Duke Energy 2050 Vision | Online Challenge

I recently learned about this interactive online “Energy Challenge” by Duke Energy where users create a plan to meet the energy demand of  a carbon constrained world in the year 2050. Duke Energy aggregated data from across its entire U.S. service territory and created a visual representation of its service area and power generating facilities which sets the stage for the user who is tasked with making choices about how to meet a growing energy demand while working towards CO2 reduction goals.  Choices that can be made by the user include: building new power plants, including solar and wind farms, upgrading existing power plants to produce more energy, retrofitting existing plants to reduce emissions, closing inefficient power plants and implementing energy efficiency programs.


As users make decisions, such as retiring a set of aging coal plants or adding a wind farm, they get instant feedback regarding cost (in billions of dollars), impact on CO2 emissions (tons per year) and the extent to which their plan meets the predicted energy demand for the year 2050.  The energy demand meter displayed on the right side of the screen makes it easy to visually monitor the extent to which a decision helps to meet energy demand and the extent to which this demand is met through non-renewable energy sources, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.

Duke Energy intends for this tool to “demonstrate the trade-offs and cost implications of choosing an energy generation mix that will meet future energy demand while minimizing CO2 emissions and keeping costs as low as possible.” I could easily see small groups of students competing to see which group can come up with a strategy that reduces CO2 emissions, meets projected energy demand for 2050 and costs the least amount of money.

To learn more about the game, click here.

One Indiana science teacher created a worksheet to accompany this game that could be used with your students.

If you have your students play this game, please share your experience by leaving a comment!



Exploring 2015 electricity generation data for the United States

Earlier this summer the Washington Post published an online map (using data from the Energy Information Administration) to help users visualize the current state of electricity generation in the United States. In addition to showing electricity generation by energy source from January to May 2015, the location and capacity (in megawatts) of each power plant is also featured. Additional maps show the distribution of power plants utilizing a particular energy source (e.g., coal plants operating from January to May 2015).

I think lots of discussions could arise by studying maps such as these with students.  Prompt students to consider how the sources of electricity that are used by a state or region are influenced by access to those energy sources.  What do students notice about the distribution of coal plants? Natural gas plants?  How might the observed trends relate to energy pricing, policies, etc.? One intention of the graphics is to show users that “Local electric utilities take advantage of the power sources most accessible to them: coal mines, dammed rivers, new supplies of natural gas or nuclear plants to generate the bulk of the nation’s electricity.”

Another interactive tool available let’s the user examine and compare how each state uses a particular energy source.  For instance, with a single click the user can view the states that generate the most electricity from wind.


International Energy Portal (EIA Beta version)

Earlier this week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)  released the Beta version of its redesigned International Energy Portal, an interactive online tool that enables users to visualize global and country-specific energy data and trends through heat maps, bubble maps, column charts, and time series plots, some of which can be animated.  These data depict international energy use  for petroleum, coal, natural gas and electricity for over 200 countries for over 30 years, starting in 1980.


The screen shot above depicts primary coal production for the year 2012 and the data visualization tool enables you to examine coal production all the way back to 1980 – users can also download the data for further analysis and comparison. Image source:

You can learn more about the new features of this tool here. Features that will likely be of interest to teachers include the ability to:

  • “view and download complete data sets for consumption, production, trade, reserves, and carbon dioxide emissions for different fuels and energy sources.”
  • “compare compare data across different energy sources by converting to British thermal units, terajoules, and tons of oil equivalent.”
  • “choose specific countries, regions, and data series for review and comparison.”
  • examine “how energy production, consumption, reserves, imports, and exports have changed over time.”

If you enjoy using graphics in your instruction and like keeping up with energy news and trends, you may want to consider subscribing to EIA’s Today in Energy newsletter which brings a short article with accompanying graphics to your inbox each weekday.  It is a quick and easy way to stay up to date on “energy facts, issues, and trends.”

Announcing an Interactive Energy Game from the US EPA

The US EPA has just released an interactive board game developed by physical scientist Rebecca Dodder, PhD, in collaboration with classroom teachers and others at the EPA, and this is a game that teachers are going to love incorporating into their instruction!  The Generate! Game lets participants engage in friendly competition while conducting a  simulation that enables them to examine the costs and benefits of using varied fossil and renewable energy sources to power their electrical grid.

Each team is given a game board which represents their power grid.  Every team has same size grid and thus can generate the same total amount of energy, but teams do not have the same mix of energy sources. Each team assembles a portfolio of energy sources for their grid under constraints provided by the facilitator – which group can come up with the least expensive energy portfolio?  Which group can come up with a portfolio that generates the least amount carbon dioxide emissions? Which energy portfolio utilizes the least amount of water and would presumably be more resilient during a drought?  How does the addition of energy efficiency measures impact costs? emissions?Game-in-playI have seen this game played numerous times, both with high school students and teachers and it is always well received. In fact, most people want to keep playing the game as each round brings an improved understanding of the kinds of decisions that must be taken into account when choosing which energy sources will be used to provide electricity. This game is a very effective instructional tool that cultivates critical thinking about the energy sources used to generate electricity both now and in the future.

Materials for making your own Generate! game are now available along with a PowerPoint slide set for introducing the game to students and a teacher’s guide for both middle school and high school teachers. Once you conduct this game with students, you will find that students are more prepared to thoughtfully engage in a discussion about the future of electricity generation and to grapple “with the complexities of our energy challenges.”

Have fun!


EPA’s Clean Power Plan & NC

On Monday June 2nd, the EPA proposed its Clean Power Plan that is intended to cut U.S. carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent (compared with 2005 emissions) by 2030.  The reductions in carbon pollution that will need to be implemented will be different for each state given that each state utilizes a different fuel mix for electricity generation and may already be incorporating low-carbon technologies at existing power plants. According to the EPA, “states can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs.” You can view the June 2nd press release here.

As a teacher, this proposed rule provides a great opportunity for your students to examine the current energy sources used to generate electricity in NC and then to critically assess the various strategies that could be used to reduce carbon pollution by the electricity sector in NC.   Janet McCabe, head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in her post titled Understanding State Goals Under the Clean Power Plan on the EPA Connect Blog, summarized the four measures the  EPA identified that are “technically sound,  affordable, and that result in significant reductions in carbon intensity. They are:
1) improving efficiency at existing coal-fired power plants,
2) increasing utilization of existing natural gas fired power plants,
3) expanding the use of wind, solar, or other low- or zero-emitting alternatives, and
4) increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses.”

According to data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 2012 NC ranked 15th nationally in terms of its contribution of carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan interactive map tool enables users to click on a state to learn more about EPA’s carbon reduction goals for that state and to learn about the fossil fuel fired power plants covered by the proposed plan.  The EPA has proposed that North Carolina  lower its carbon pollution to 992 lb/MWh in 2030. North Carolina’s 2012 emission rate was 1,646 pounds/megawatt hours (lb/MWh) so this represents a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030.

You can read more about what this plan means for NC by reading the June 2, 2014 News and Observer article, EPA calls on NC power plants to reduce emission rates 40% by 2030. According to the article, which referenced Jonas Monast, director of the climate and energy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and adjunct professor at the UNC School of Law, federal projections show North Carolina is already on track to see an 18 percent drop in carbon emissions by 2020, compared with 2005.

Fact sheets and details about the proposed rule are available here.

This graphic from the New York Times may also be useful in instruction.

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