How Much Coal Is Required to Run a 100-watt Light Bulb 24 hours a Day for a Year?

We’ll start by figuring out how much energy in kilowatt-hours the light bulb uses per year. We take the power it uses in kilowatts and multiply that by the number of hours in a year. That gives 0.1 kW x 8,760 hours or 876 kWh.

The thermal energy content of coal is 6,150 kWh/ton. Although coal-fired power generators are very efficient, they are still limited by the laws of thermodynamics. Only about 40 percent of the thermal energy in coal is converted to electricity, so the electricity generated per ton of coal is 0.4 x 6,150 kWh or 2,460 kWh/ton.

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To find out how many tons of coal were burned for our light bulb, we divide 876 kWh by 2,460 kWh/ton. That equals 0.357 tons. Multiplying by 2,000 pounds/ton, we get 714 pounds (325 kg) of coal. That is a pretty big pile of coal, but let’s look at what else was produced to power that light bulb.

A typical 500-megawatt coal power plant produces 3.5 billion kWh per year. That is enough energy for 4 million of our light bulbs to operate year round. To produce this amount of electrical energy, the plant burns 1.43 million tons of coal. It also produces these pollutants:

Sulfur Dioxide

  • Main cause of acid rain
  • Total for power plant: 10,000 Tons
  • One light bulb-year’s worth: 5 pounds

Nitrogen Oxides

  • Cause smog and acid rain
  • Total for power plant: 10,200 Tons
  • One light bulb-year’s worth: 5.1 pounds

Carbon Dioxide

  • Greenhouse gas suspected of causing global warming
  • Total for power plant: 3,700,000 Tons
  • One light bulb-year’s worth: 1,852 pounds

The power plant also produces smaller amounts of just about every element on the periodic table, including the radioactive ones. In fact, a coal-burning power plant emits more radiation than a (properly functioning) nuclear power plant!

Here are some interesting links:

  • How the Power Distribution Grid Works
  • How Nuclear Power Works
  • How Nuclear Radiation Works
  • If daytime running lights were mandatory in the US, and all vehicles had them, how much extra gasoline would that use each year?


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