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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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How Much Biofuel Do Santa’s Reindeer Need?


Each Christmas, around the world billions of children sit quietly in their beds at night pondering one of life’s biggest mysteries about a fat man in a red suit; ‘what are the propulsion specs on Santa’s sleigh and what is the relative level of its fuel economy?’

OK, so maybe it’s only the engineering minded children who are wondering that. Still, it’s an important question to consider. We already have a clear answer to how much oil Santa’s sleigh needs to use for backup power in the event that Rudolph and his compatriots succumb to Crazy Reindeer disease (an analog to Mad Cow).

Now that Santa is focused on going green though, it’s time to consider how much biofuel the reindeer need. Or more precisely, how much biofuel could be created through the biomass ingested by Santa’s reindeer? And what is the cost of all that biomass?

Let’s start with a few simple assumptions. Let’s assume that Santa’s reindeer eat grass like most reindeer do. (If they are gulping down 5 hour energy shots to prepare for the big night instead, then I have no idea how to account for that in biofuel or cost terms.) That grass most closely translates to the cellulosic ethanol feedstock of switchgrass.

Let’s also assume that property rights are not a big issue at the North Pole and so Santa can get his switchgrass at the production cost. It’s probably not economical to import switchgrass, and plus it would put a lot of hardworking farmer elves out of work and then they’d probably gather outside Santa’s home with tiny signs, picketing and calling for new border adjustment tariffs to stop the import of unfair grass from Greenland and Scandinavia. Who wants to deal with having to try and get past a tiny picket line? Far easier to just grow the grass yourself on North Pole land and fight off the occasional polar bear.

Switchgrass in upper Midwest costs about $30 per acre to cultivate, and each acre yields about 15 tons of switchgrass or 300 gallons of cellulosic ethanol. Thus, it takes about 1 ton of switch grass to get 20 gallons of ethanol, and the cost of that raw material is about $2 or about $0.10 per gallon. Now you might ask why the Grinch down at the farm supply store is charging far more than ten cents for a gallon of ethanol, but you have to remember that the cost there includes significant processing and refining none of which is relevant to the reindeer. So we are just looking at the cost of the raw material. Related: Can Killer Whales Strike A Blow Against Canada’s Oil Sands?

As an additional adjustment, we need to account for the fact that the North Pole is considerably less agriculturally productive than the Upper Midwest. North Pole farming data is a closely guarded secret, but let’s use a ballpark figure that the North Pole is only 50 percent less productive than the Midwest. That means switch grass now costs $4 per ton.

Next we have to figure out how many tons each reindeer will eat. This is where things get really tricky. We cannot assume that Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen have the same level of appetite as normal reindeer. That’s just not reasonable from a caloric intake stance.

Instead, let’s assume that the reindeer have to eat switchgrass in rough proportion to the number of miles they will travel in one night. Careful calculations indicate that Santa’s sleigh needs to travel 226 million miles on Christmas Eve. That means each reindeer needs enough food to fly that distance.

It’s tough to get data on caloric needs for a reindeer to fly one mile, but we do know that mules and oxen can go roughly 15-20 miles per day. We also know that a typical livestock animal might need to eat around 1.5 percent - 2 percent of its bodyweight in forage feed (depending on the nutritional content of that feed). Related: Why The Koch Brothers Just Warned Of A Gasoline Price Spike

We also know that a male reindeer weights 350-400 pounds. Santa’s reindeer are probably on the more muscular end of that scale, meaning that they’d need to eat about 2 percent of 400 pounds, or 8 pounds to be able to fly 15-20 miles – roughly one-half a pound of grass per mile. Thus to fly 226 million miles, a reindeer needs to eat about 113 million pounds of switchgrass.

Since Santa has 9 reindeer including newcomer Rudolph, he needs 1 billion pounds or about 500,000 tons of switchgrass. That 500,000 tons of switchgrass could have been used to produce about 10 million gallons of ethanol. Santa’s furry helpers require food from 67,000 acres of North Pole land at a cost of $2.0 million total. What a bargain!

By Michael McDonald for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • evodevo on December 26 2016 said:
    Reindeer are browsers - they eat lichens, mosses, tree bark and leaves. Very little grass.
  • frank on January 08 2017 said:
    The real question is how much do they produce

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