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Burning $300 million on the climate battle

| Written by John Farrell | 1 Comment | Updated on Oct 28, 2010 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at

I heard this week that foundations collectively spent as much as $300 million in the failed attempt to pass comprehensive climate legislation during the last session in Congress. Someone sarcastically remarked that we should have just burned the money for energy instead.

But would it have been worth it? A short analysis follows:

Assume that the $300 million was dispersed in $1 bills. Each dollar bill weighs 1 gram and is 75% cotton and 25% linen. Finding the energy content of a dollar was not easy (even though many conservatives accuse government of spending money on worthless research, apparently no one is literally burning through cash). As a substitute, we used the figure of 7,500 Btu per pound for cotton linters.

Our $300 million equals 300 million grams of dollars, which is 660,800 pounds of dollars, or 330 tons.

At 7,500 Btu per pound, burning $300 million nets us 4.96 billion Btus.  And at 3,413 Btus per kilowatt-hour (generously assuming 100% conversion efficiency compared to typical power plant efficiencies of 30-35%), we get 1.45 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.  It’s net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, because during its growth, the cotton plant took up all the carbon dioxide emitted during combustion.  For comparison, 1.45 million kWhs from coal-fired electricity emits about 1,450 tons of carbon dioxide. 

So, if we burn $300 million for electricity instead of passing climate legislation…

  • …we can power 145 homes for a year (at 10,000 kWh per year)
  • …offset 1,315 tonnes of carbon dioxide (0.00002% of annual U.S. emissions)…
  • …at a cost of $228,000 per ton.

Conservatives take note: it’s far cheaper to get carbon dioxide emission reductions (under $100 per ton!) to pass comprehensive climate legislation than to burn $300 million.

Update: this analysis is not meant to imply that we shouldn’t fight for climate policy, but that the failure (like burning the money) is costly.

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About John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power. More

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