Energy Alternatives for Santa's Sleigh

What if Old Saint Nick replaced his reindeer with electric, solar or nuclear power? We run the numbers.

By Jim Sullivan|Wednesday, December 11, 2013
RELATED TAGS: TRANSPORTATION, ENERGY
SantaSleigh
SantaSleigh
Sylvie Bouchard and Dim Dimich/Shutterstock
For most of his fabled career, Santa Claus has had to rely on reindeer for transport of his global export enterprise. Now, however, modern technology is giving the big guy in the red suit options other than ruminants. 

An elf wishing to remain anonymous gave our reporter access to specs on various alternatives Old Saint Nick is considering to cover his 4.6-million-mile route to all “nice”-listed boys and girls.

Reindeer

  • Fuel source: Vegetation
  • Cost: 0.006 cents per mile
  • Analysis: Santa was initially interested in converting reindeer-generated methane into fuel to heat the toy factory, but the standard industry method, the Fischer-Tropsch process, is still fairly inefficient and currently not cost-effective.

Electric

  • Fuel source: Liquid-cooled lithium-ion batteries comparable to those powering some American-brand cars already on the road
  • Cost: 4 cents per mile
  • Analysis: Estimating the expense of charging the batteries at $0.125 per kilowatt-hour, Santa’s working group on the issue calculated efficiency at 0.32 kwh per mile, roughly equivalent to getting 105 miles per gallon of gasoline. The paucity of charging stations, however, renders this plan unviable — at least for now.

Solar

  • Fuel source: Panels retrofitted to sleigh
  • Cost: A baseline model would run $100,000 based on a concept car in development at the University of Michigan, but the final price tag could top half a mil, depending upon how much Santa wants to trick out his ride.
  • Analysis: Not viable. Santa flies at night. 

Internal Combustion

  • Fuel source: Gasoline
  • Cost: 7.5 cents per mile
  • Analysis: Estimated requirements are 92,000 gallons at $3.75 per gallon, getting 50 miles to the gallon for a fully laden, er, magical sleigh. Volatility of world crude-oil supply is a consideration.

Nuclear

  • Fuel source: Fission
  • Cost: Lifetime fuel cost for a uranium-powered sleigh would be negligible — less than a gallon of gasoline — but the reactor’s upfront cost would be in the millions.
  • Analysis: Smaller reactors using thorium to produce uranium-233 are in development, but the technology isn’t quite there. Plus, the weight of necessary shielding for a sleigh-size unit makes this option impractical. For now, Rudolph’s nose will be the only thing glowing.

Balloon

  • Fuel source: Propane to heat balloon air, wind for propulsion
  • Cost: About $50,000 for a spiffy gondola balloon — possibly less if non-unionized elf labor is used — plus propane cost of about $2,000 based on a per-gallon expense of about 3 bucks
  • Analysis: Variable wind speed and weather patterns would reduce on-time deliveries. 

Addendum: Kris Kringle Inc. briefly considered a coal-powered sleigh, but management realized it would deplete stores needed to fill the stockings of those who didn’t make the “nice” list. Bottom line: Dasher and Blitzen needn’t worry about job security. Magic reindeer are amazingly cost-effective.

[This article originally appeared in print as "Belly Full of Jelly and a Sleigh Full of...Solar Panels?"]

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