Matt Chester calculates that Santa must deliver approximately 64 million kilograms, or 64,000 metric tons, of coal to naughty kids each year.
Santa’s coal “gifts” could power 38,300 homes in the US for one year
By Matt Chester
This article was published by the Chester Energy and Policy blog on Dec. 20, 2018.
We all heard it growing up– as soon as Thanksgiving was over, Santa Claus was watching us and if we misbehaved he’d leave our gifts at the North Pole and bring us a lump of coal. Even if you had never gotten the dreaded bituminous surprising in your stocking, surely plenty of kids out there behave poorly each year and so the North Pole must have been a significant exporter of coal, right?
That’s right, the coming of another holiday means it’s my regular attempt to shoehorn an energy-related article into your pleasant enjoyment of the Christmas season!
The tradition of threatening naughty kids with coal in lieu of the PlayStations or other wish-list items apparently predates our current version of Santa Claus, but its origin can be tied to the idea that most Santa-like characters often came through the chimney (which typically burned coal in the 19th and 20th centuries) and so grabbing a lump of coal was a convenient and tangible threat to replaces gifts (though some people on today’s climate change naughty list would probably love receiving coal).
While today’s version of Santa still typically comes through the chimney, is coal an outdated delivery for those on the naughty list?
More importantly, though, how does Santa’s choice of coal– the dirtiest fossil fuel, i.e., the one with the largest carbon footprint— play out in today’s world where cutting greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible is key if we’re to prevent catastrophic climate change and all its effects (including, Santa and his friends should note, melting of the Arctic ice in the North Pole)?
Before moving further, I’ll share my usual caveats that these calculations are inherently 1) akin to being done on the back of an envelope, 2) using educated guesses and assumptions, where needed, and 3) mostly performed for the tongue-in-cheek enjoyment of doing so (e.g., let’s just agree, Santa’s sleigh runs on the ultimate renewable energy– magic and/or Christmas spirit– and the only other resources required are cookies for the big man and carrots for Rudolph & Co.).
That out of the way, let’s dive in…
How much coal does Santa deliver annually?
The first question to ask is how much coal is delivered each year.
To start, the world population is about 7.6 billion people. Of that total, the CIA estimates that approximately 31.4 per cent are Christian– and while not everyone who celebrates Christmas is Christian and not everyone who is Christian celebrates Christmas, that figure remains our best estimate for the Christmas-celebrating population of the world.
Then we consider that 26 per cent of the world population is under 15 years old and thus awaiting gifts from Santa come December 25. Put together, that’s about 620 million children who celebrate Christmas.
But of course, the real question is how many of those 620 million children are naughty and only receive a lump of coal?
Answering this question requires the most significant leap to estimate: What’s the criteria for being on the naughty list? Can naughty children redeem themselves to actually receive a present? How forgiving is jolly ol’ Saint Nick? Well, for the sake of coming up with an answer I read a study that found in a guessing game where children aged three to seven were told not to peek, 25 per cent of those children peeked and 83 per cent of those who cheated subsequently lied about it.
Because parenting is largely teaching right from wrong, I’m willing to call the peeking children who gave into their conscience and told the truth nice. But the cheaters who then hid their misdeeds sound like naughty-listers to me– and they represented 20.75 per cent of the children tested. Taking 20.75 per cent of Christmas-celebrating children as naughty gives a total of 129 million who deserve coal.
How much coal constitutes 129 million lumps? Amazon once sold $6 lumps of Christmas coal that weighed half a kilogram each. Using that as our ‘standard lump’ means Santa must deliver approximately 64 million kilograms, or 64,000 metric tons, of coal to naughty kids each year.
Energy implications of that coal haul
Now let’s dig into what that much coal means. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the 64,000 metric tons of coal would be enough to produce 1,359,000 million Btu (or almost 400,000 megawatthours) in the U.S. electric power sector– that’s more than the monthly total for the coal-powered sector of 13 different states.
The power generated from that amount of coal would be enough to power 38,300 homes across the United States for a year.
More importantly, though, as Santa certainly cares about minimizing emissions that are contributing to climate change and the melting of his Winter Wonderland home, are the emissions.
That amount of coal, when burned, would release almost 127,000 metric tons of CO2, equivalent to the average annual total of over 27,500 cars. To sequester that much carbon, over three million tree seedlings would need to be planted and grown for 10 years.
Now Santa is obviously magic, but I don’t think he can just wave away those dangerous emissions. But why would he just allow misbehaving children to have all this coal that would harm the North Pole, the planet, public health, and more? Why, Santa, why!?
I wrestled with this question for weeks after starting this analysis, tossing and turning at night to figure out why Santa would do this to us. But then it hit me, Santa is wise– he’s obviously doing this for a good reason…
Santa’s sneaky sequestration
Giving naughty children coal was never a matter of convenience, it was killing two birds with one fossil fuel stone. Not only do the children get their comeuppance for disobeying their parents, but a lump of coal is taken out of circulation!
While the possibility exists that the naughty child would find a way to burn the lump of coal, chances are that they’re going to simply throw it under the bed or into the back of the closet. That coal will likely never be burned, and thus Santa has effectively sequestered the emissions from that lump of coal– it’s brilliant!
Granted, this method of sequestering coal will not prove a terribly effective strategy on its own.
Global proved recoverable reserves of coal (which represent the amount of coal estimated to be underground and accessible with today’s technology) totalled 1,031 billion metric tons in 2015.
That amount of coal is so great that it would require over 16 million years of coal deliveries from Santa (at current level of naughty children) to deplete. In fact, the 64,000 metric tons of coal delivered to naughty children each year represents less than one-hundredth of a per cent of coal production (almost 703,000,000 metric tons in 2017).
As such, these efforts by Mr. Claus can only really be a token gesture in the fight to minimize the burning of coal. Perhaps to really step up, Santa would need to embrace the recent finding that it’s equally important to prevent production of fossil fuels as is their consumption. But I have one other tangible suggestion for Kris Kringle, when it comes to delivering energy commodities by sleigh and reindeer…
Taking it a step further
If Santa wanted to give another boost to the clean energy transition, he could give the nice children (of which we estimate 492 million) something as a token from the clean energy industry.
Given 492 million wind turbines is rather impractical (even with magic) and delivering lumps of uranium would be, at best, a questionable decision and a PR nightmare.
But one obvious suggestion arises– each well-behaved child could receive a small solar panel! I found this 0.5 watt solar panel which allows you to build your own solar-powered models, solar toys, solar lights, solar displays, and even charging small DC batteries.
While 0.5 watts may not sound like much, it elucidates the beauty of a solar panel compared with the lump of coal– you burn the lump of coal and it’s over, but that solar panel Santa left can continually generate energy for the rest of its life.
Seeing this in action is a tangible and important lesson for not just all the good children, but their parents too. Even better, these panels can be connected in series, so as children collect more panels each Christmas, their collected solar generation will rise.
With just one panel, a child can power his or her iPhone in 11 hours— but with two years of good behaviour they can cut that time to just 5.5 hours. Then with a third solar panel, plug in some LEDs or a portable radio (both advertised use of this panel) and get the party going!
In the end, these nice children will not only be learning about solar power (which is a great outcome on its own, as they’ll then be more likely to seek out and learn about renewable energy and its importance) but they’ll be be (ever so slightly) reducing their carbon footprints when they charge their devices.
Giving each child on the nice list one of these solar panels would be the equivalent of adding 246 megawatts (MW) of solar power each year– in a world where 2,227 MW of residential solar systems were deployed in the United States in 2017, that’s not something to ignore.
Remember to take all these calculations and conclusions for what they’re meant to be– a fun way to connect the holiday to a thought experiment in energy. That said, be sure to tell any budding clean-tech professionals you may be raising that Santa would love to deliver some renewable energy toys if they behave well.
Just be sure to mix in some of the typical gifts like Hot Wheels and Scruff-A-Luvs along with the educational and planet-saving ones. It is Christmas, after all!
I hope you have a very happy holiday season, and after the long holiday break you can rest assured that I’ll be there to force energy-related calculations where you least expect them.
After the article note: Once I finished drafting this article, a friend shared with me the following comic that pretty much addressed my whole premise. I figured it was necessary to give Air Bear Entertainment a proper shoutout for his relevant comic:
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