Letter Re: Some Thoughts on Burning Coal

Hello Jim,
I would like to make a few observations on Dale’s letter concerning alternative heat and home power.

My first would be his perspective on the use of propane as a primary fuel source.  I have used propane for heating, emergency spot heating (no electric required), cooking, and domestic hot water for more than a decade, and with proper planning it is a very reliable and cost effective fuel source that stores well long term, and can also be used to power most generators with an inexpensive conversion kit..  I currently have two 1,000 gallon above ground tanks, holding a combined 1,600 gallons, which can provide my energy use (minus electricity) for approximately 15-16 months of normal use, or 24+ months in austerity mode.  These tanks and associated hardware (regulators and plumbing) have paid for themselves many times over, due to the fact that a large bulk propane purchase in the summer can save upwards of $1 per gallon over peak winter prices.  Tank maintenance is as simple as keeping grass and other plants mowed or otherwise removed from the tanks, and the occasional wire brush and painting of places when the paint may peel.  In more than a decade I have had no issues with leaks, although we do shut off the valve from one tank until the other is nearly empty, in case that situation should occur.

Use of coal for home generation of electricity vs. its use at the utility scale is not only a matter of scale, but one of technology.  I have friends in the power generation business, and commercial power generation uses very fine tuned and sophisticated steam generation arrangements.  The coal is first powdered and injected with air into the firebox of the boiler system.  The dry (non-condensing) steam in the system runs at temperatures of 600+ degrees, with very high pressures, and is used in multistage turbines that are finely balanced.  Although a small version of this type of system might work at the home scale, the hardware would be cost prohibitive.  Small stationary boilers running steam generators and turbines or pistons (like the old steam locomotives) might be doable, but these actually require nearly constant management and maintenance, and if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, can have catastrophic failure modes.  Operating such a system pre-SHF would also most likely require an operators license and inspections of the equipment.

One possible alternative would be a Stirling engine, like the ones manufactured by Stirling Technology Inc., in Athens, Ohio.  They claim that their ST-5 engine can power up to a 3.5 KW generator, using only a heat source.  I only know about this company because some friends who work at the local university and share my self reliance interests have mentioned it to me.  I don’t know any of the details about the unit nor it’s cost, but I do think that the required generator is not included.

One final thought on coal is something that I recall from a Mother Earth News article from perhaps 20 years ago.  The author dug a huge hole on the back of his rural property, lined it with rubber/plastic sheeting, dumped in something like 50 tons of hard coal, covered the coal with additional sheeting, and then replaced the soil.  He re-seeded the area with grass, and called it something like his personal post apocalypse coal mine.  I’ve never had the space or money for such a thing, and you might need to keep an eye out for the EPA if you did this today, but I’ve always remembered it as something I thought was a clever and interesting idea.

Good luck, – LVZ in Ohio