Monthly Archives: March 2015

What Are the Odds?

It’s my birthday, and Dave’s and Mary’s and Sean’s too! We’re in a neighborhood dinner group consisting of six couples. One evening a few years ago we came to the rather amazing discovery that of the twelve of us, four shared a March 18th birthday.

Now the chance that two people meeting on the street would share the same birthdate, say, March 18, is 1 in 365. The chance that three people would share the same birthday is 1 in 133,226. Add a fourth person and the odds are only 1 in 48 million they would share the same date of birth.

But the odds that those four don’t share just any date, but share March 18, drop to 1 in 17 trillion. Hey, it’s a special date!

If we assume the world population is about 7.3 billion, and we divide that entire world population randomly into little groups of four, there would be 1.83 billion such groups. If you did that grouping-by-four many different times and kept track each time how many of the 1.83 billion groups had all four members sharing the same birthdate (any date), you would expect an average of 38 such groups with each grouping.

The chance that among those 1.83 billion groups of four there existed one group of four that shared a March 18 birthday is 1 in ten thousand. That is, you would expect to have to regroup the world’s entire population 27 times to get one group of four that shared a March 18 birthdate. And the four of us live within a couple blocks of each other and get together every other month to share a meal with our wives and husbands.

The world sometimes turns out to be stranger and smaller than you imagined.



The U.S. Department of Energy has for the second time decided to terminate its financial support of the attempt to demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The concept of “clean coal” depends on the ability to capture and inactivate or permanently store the carbon dioxide emissions and other contaminants otherwise released when coal is burned to produce electricity.

The following undated statement appears at the very bottom of the FUTUREGEN 2.0 page of the federal government’s Office of Fossil Energy website under the banner, CLOSEOUT OF FEDERAL SUPPORT.

“Due to statutory restraints under The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Department of Energy initiated a structured closeout of federal support for the FutureGen 2.0 project in February 2015. Although federal support for the project has ended, FutureGen 2.0 provided tangible benefits and valuable information, particularly with regard to oxy-combustion technology and storage site characterization.”

It is unclear whether, without continued federal support, FutureGen will continue. Of course it was an open question whether “clean coal” would ever be feasible. Retrofitting existing coal-fired power plants with CCS was an expensive proposition from the beginning. Companies burn coal because it can be obtained without paying the health and environmental costs of mining it, and without paying the health and environmental costs of burning it. In other words, we mine and burn coal to produce electricity because our government has structured the energy industry in such a way that it is cheap to do so.

We could choose to make the energy industry pay those health and environmental costs of coal up front, passing the costs on to consumers of the electricity, or we could avoid some of those health and environmental costs by paying to capture and isolate or destroy the carbon dioxide and other pollutants produced from burning coal. Either choice would turn coal into an expensive and likely unaffordable source of energy, not something that would gladden the hearts of the rich industrial giants burning it.

CCS has been sponsored off and on by the federal government since 2003. It is an open question whether or not CCS would ever have been affordable. It is also an open question whether or not the very concept of “clean coal” was anything more than a wistful oxymoron that those in the know knew would never really happen.

Kaiparowits coal-burning power plant in Arizona, July 2004