Save on heating with alternative energy


Photo courtesy of Channel Myrt at Flickr.com.

Keeping warm is hard work. When the days get shorter and cold weather creeps up on us, there are many different ways to keep winter at bay. The most common sources of heat are natural gas, heating oil, coal, electric furnaces, and wood fueled fireplaces. As the costs of these heat sources skyrocket, many people are looking for alternatives.

Natural gas is one of the most widely used energy sources inside homes – about half of all American houses use natural gas to stay warm, and that number is increasing as natural gas systems dominate in newly built homes. Natural gas is available in many parts of the country, it burns relatively clean, and natural gas systems don’t require much maintenance. The price of natural gas has stayed low for several years, although lately the market price has been volatile. In the last six months, natural gas has traded between $6 and $14 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs). A typical home will use about 111 million BTUs during the winter, so heating a home for the winter would cost between $700 and $1,500, plus monthly service charges.

Heating oil is very popular in the Northeast. For instance, 80 percent of the homes in Maine rely on heating oil to keep warm, and the average home uses more than 800 gallons per winter. Heating oil is not a very clean burning fuel, and it releases plenty of CO2 and particulates. With the price of heating oil going up sharply in the last several months, price is a major concern. As I write this, heating oil is selling in the range of $3.40 – $3.70 per gallon. That adds up to a heating oil bill of about $2,500 to $3,000 for the winter, plus delivery costs. Delivery costs can be substantial, and typical customers will need 2-4 deliveries.

Coal furnaces are also widespread. Coal is cheap and it’s a domestic energy source, but there are some serious downsides. Coal furnaces cost more than other heating equipment (three times the cost of natural gas heaters), they require constant supervision, they’re messy, and they create obscene amounts of pollution. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “From mining to processing to transportation to burning to disposal, coal has more environmental impacts than any other energy source.” The price of coal is also up sharply this year, with the price of the cleanest burning types of coal rising the most. The average cost for a ton of heating coal has tripled – a ton of coal with 25 million BTUs of energy costs between $140 and $180 as I write this and is expected to go up further. Heating an average house at these prices will cost $600-$900 this winter, plus delivery.

Electric furnaces are commonly found in areas with mild winters, and they are built onto many air conditioning systems as a backup. These central heaters are very expensive to operate – they generally have very poor efficiency, and the price of electricity has been rising along with the price of natural gas and coal (these are the primary fuels that electric power stations use). A typical electric heater can convert 1 kilowatt of electricity into about 3,300 BTU. Assuming electric costs of 12-20 cents per kilowatt, heating a home with electricity over the winter would cost $4,000 to $6,600, plus service fees. (To estimate the cost based on your utility rate, multiply your cost per kWh by 33,000).

Firewood is still used to hold off Old Man Winter (especially in parts of the country where trees outnumber people). The carbon produced by burning wood is the same amount that’s stored within trees as they grow, so sustainably harvested firewood is carbon neutral. It’s often possible to find “free” firewood – many industries have to pay to dispose of their wood scraps and will appreciate your help transporting their waste away. Try checking in with landscapers, tree surgeons, carpenters, and local recycling centers – but make sure to choose wood without varnish or paint. Treated wood can release toxic fumes when it’s burned. Dried (aka ‘cured’) cords of firewood have the highest energy content per pound. Green wood has less than 6 million BTU per ton, while cured firewood has approximately 13.5 million BTU per ton. Cords of firewood cost from $150-$250, so heating a home with cured firewood can cost $750 to $1,300, plus substantial transportation costs.

For the most part, these heat sources come from non-renewable sources. Using lumber from deforested areas and fossil fuels from the ground contributes to climate change while also damaging air quality. The US supply of oil and natural gas is inadequate for current demand – huge amounts of these fuels are imported every year. Heating oil depends primarily on foreign sources – more than 60% of all heating oil comes from imports. About 85% of all natural gas is produced in the US, and most of the remainder is imported from Canada.

Consumers and scientists are experimenting with various ways to reduce the cost of heating a house. There are plans to produce natural gas from landfills, and pilot projects are testing to see how biodiesel performs as an additive to heating oil. There are also long-term projects to clean up coal and produce electricity from green sources. Those developments are years or even decades away, so here are some alternative heating options that you can try out today:

1) Consider a pellet stove.

If pellets are available in your area, you may want to consider this unconventional stove to cut down on your bills and reduce your carbon footprint. Pellet stoves burn waste material that’s been processed into convenient pellets – the compressed sawdust and wood chips look a bit like animal feed. Pellet stoves are designed for particular fuels, and there are even some pellet stoves that burn pellets made from corn husks, cherry pits, and other agricultural waste. By matching a pellet stove with a cheap fuel source in your area, you can cut costs and intercept trash before it makes it to the landfill. Ash from a pellet stove also makes an excellent fertilizer. A pellet stove burning premium (low ash) wood pellets currently costs about $1,000 to $1,600 plus transport fees to heat a home through winter.

A pellet stove burning Biomass pellets can cost even less. Compressed corn straw pellets (where available) cost about a third as much as premium sawdust pellets. A pellet stove running on biomass can cost $300 to $1,000 to fuel. Many pellet stoves come with self-feeding hoppers that can go a day or so without supervision, but storage of the pellets takes a lot of space and can add to the cost. Pellet stoves are in short supply though, so you may want to check non-conventional sources to pick up a used one.


Photo courtesy of lisatomt at Flickr.com.

2) Apply dark paint to your roof and outside walls.

Dark colors do a great job of soaking up the sun’s energy, and paint is a low cost way to heat up your home. Many town recycling centers have partially used buckets of paint available for free. Blending these paints will usually produce a heat absorbing brown paint.


Photo courtesy of lolla_sig at Flickr.com.

3) If you use electric heaters, ask your utility company about a time of day meter.

Electric heaters run most often during the night, when demand for electricity is low. Some utility companies offer discounted rates during these off-peak hours and you can cut your bill simply by installing the right kind of meter.


Photo courtesy of Fragments of Eternity at Flickr.com.

4) Install a geothermal loop.

The temperature 50 feet underground stays fairly constant year round. Even when it’s snowing, you can tap the warmth of the ground to heat your house. Geothermal loops work by running water through underground pipes and up to heat exchange units. Not only can they cut heating bills by 30-70%, but they can also be used to cool your house in the summer.


Photo courtesy of tomm12723 at Flickr.com.

5) Add insulation.

Honestly, this should be the first item on the list. Insulation is cheap, easy to apply, and it cuts costs by reducing the need for heat. For the best results, use a thermal imager to identify “hot spots” – the places of your home that are leaking the worst and focus on insulating them.


Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

Willie Run-coast to coast on one tank of biodiesel

willie logoThe red headed stranger has always been a major supporter of bio-fuels.  Start a conversation anywhere in Texas and Willie Nelson will invariably wind up with at least a casual mention.  So Nik Bristow and Brian Pierce, a couple of copywriters for Fitzgerald, have launched an attempt today to make a coast to coast drive from New York to California running entirely on BioWillie brand Biodiesel.  From the trips website:

“Some of the biodiesel we’ll be using is is derived from Beef Tallow.  The rest will be from waste vegetable oil.  biodiesel is a very diverse fuel and can be made from a variety of sources.  We think it’s one of the biodiesels greatest strengths”

The vehicle in question will be a Diesel powered Volkswagen Jetta with a modified gas tank.  The trip will be made entirely without stopping for fuel or food.  They will stop only to switch out drivers every few hours for safety reasons.

The journey starts in midtown Manhattan, and will continue on across the country passing through over 400 cities on the way to the final destination in Santa Monica. As for the math, the Jetta has been modified to hold 75 gallons of BioWillie brand biodiesel. The Jetta gets 40 MPG which gives us a theoretical range of 3000 miles. A quick check of Google maps gives us a distance of 2,809 miles, so they have a small margin of error.

From PR.com

“We’ve had a lot of people asking why we’re doing this. Well, not only are Nik and I are longtime biodiesel supporters, but

we are also communicators by trade. We’re lucky to be affiliated with Fitzgerald+CO, where we’re connected with a large group of enlightened, innovative folks who have made this run a reality. It’s good to be able to put your skills to work for something you personally believe in,” said Pierce.”

The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, known in popular culture as the cannonball run, was an illegal race that followed this same route Back in the 70’s. The best time was achieved in a Jaguar XJS in 1979 of just under 33 hours. That averages out to 87 mph average. While there is obviously a connection here, ascertions that they will be following the exact same route are incorrect. The original  ended up in Redondo beach and there was NO set route specified. And the most obvious difference is that instead of trying to set record speeds they will try to make the journey on the least amount of fuel possible.

At willierun.com you can monitor the progress of the team and even see video feeds from the car.

Pollution makes you fat?

Photo courtesy of Joe_13 at Flickr.com.

Pollution has been blamed for a wide variety of health ailments, including heart disease, asthma, various forms of cancer, and toxic shock. New evidence suggests that pollution may also be contributing to the worldwide obesity epidemic. The research focused on a particular pesticide (Hexachlorobenze) and monitored babies from birth until the age of 6 and a half years old. It found a sharp increase in obesity rates for children with the highest exposure to HCB.

This study suggests very strongly that exposure to HCB in the womb causes an increased risk of obesity. The mechanism is unknown, but exposure to chemicals can trigger the expression of certain genes, and chemical exposure can also alter the blood chemistry of women who are pregnant. This study is worrisome because even though HCB has been banned, there are many similar chemicals that we’re exposed to every day in our cosmetics, drinking water, and food supply.

Experiments have shown that many chemicals fed to pregnant animals cause their offspring to grow up obese. These include organotins, long employed in antifouling paints on ships and now widely found in fish; bisphenol A (BPA), used in baby bottles and to line cans of food, among countless other applications; and phthalates, found in cosmetics, shampoos, plastics to wrap food, and in a host of other everyday products.

These pollutants – dubbed “obesogens” as a result of these findings – are so ubiquitous that almost everyone now has them in their bodies. Ninety-five per cent of Americans excrete BPA in their urine; 90 per cent of babies have been found to be exposed to phthalates in the womb; and every umbilical cord analysed in the new Spanish study was found to contain organchlorine pesticides such as HCB.

It’s important to remember that correlation doesn’t guarantee causation. For example, ice cream sales and deaths from drowning both increase during the summer, but it would be ridiculous to say that reducing ice cream sales would save people from drowning. More study is clearly needed.

In the meantime, there are some fruits and vegetables that are much more likely to contain pesticides. You may want to cut down your consumption of peaches, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, apples, and other heavily contaminated foods, and instead substitute foods with lower pesticide exposure, such as sweet corn, avocados, onions, mangoes, and pineapples. If you can’t live without your peaches, organic produce is available for many of the highest risk items.

Photo courtesy of fwickafwee at Flickr.com.

Link roundup. Interesting eco news stories.


Photo courtesy of
Anthony L. Solis at Flickr.com.

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

The cost of airfare has gotten a lot of newsprint. Even though oil prices seem to have stabilized, ticket prices are still going up. When air travel gets so expensive that even P Diddy scales back his private jet flights, well, we’ve officially reached the tipping point. Cheap airfare is history, and soon we may all be flying like it’s 1955.

Sailing is a green alternative to air travel, but it can be awfully slow. A group raising awareness of plastic pollution decided to sail across the Pacific in a boat made from plastic junk? Believe it or not, they survived the trip and made it to Honolulu. Things got a bit dicey along the way, because they ran low on food. When they tried to catch some fish to supplement their provisions, they were (ironically) foiled by plastic pollution:

One day, said Paschal, they caught a fish after watching it grow for five weeks. They were going to eat it, but when they cut it open they found its stomach was full of plastic confetti.

Monitoring pollution in the ocean may become easier in the next couple of years. Scientists have found a new way to measure water pollution using algae. The method is a bit bizarre – just shine a special light on the algae and ‘listen’ to the sounds of the light striking the water. Healthy algae will absorb more of the light, and unhealthy algae will be unable to absorb certain wavelengths that due to the pollutants in the water. Algae reacts strongly to even small amounts of water contamination, and algae is widely available. As this method is developed further, the hope is that tests using algae will cost a fraction of what conventional tests cost.

Wind energy continues to make the news too. Wind turbines are going up at a phenomenal rate, and the production capacity of wind power doubled between 2006 and 2008. Even though wind power still makes up a tiny portion of total power, wind turbines accounted for more than a third of all new electrical production built last year.

The U.S. Department of Energy in May forecast that wind power could reach 20 percent of the nation’s power supply by 2030.

Make eco friendly choices at the cafeteria


Photo courtesy of Drunken Monkey at Flickr.com.

When you visit the buffet line, how often do you think of the planet? If you visit the cafeteria on a regular basis, the choices you make can really add up.

At the soda fountain, are styrofoam cups the only option? Each cup weighs about 10 grams – that means a cup a day adds up to about 5 and a half pounds of styrofoam per year. You can keep that styrofoam out of landfills by bringing in your own cup, or suggesting that your cafeteria offer re-usable cups (you might even be able to get a promotion – just point out how much the company can save on materials and waste disposal costs).

The way that you fill your plate can also make a difference. If you fill your plate halfway and then go back for seconds on a fresh plate, that doubles the amount of water needed to wash your dishes. It’s best to make just a single trip and give your stomach time to settle. That way, you wont be in the middle of eating a second plate when your hunger runs out. Wasting food can have a huge impact on the environment too – for example, a quarter pound burger can take 100-1,300 gallons of water to produce.

Some college cafeterias are even getting rid of lunch trays. By eliminating trays, they expect to save megawatts of power and millions of gallons of water that are normally used to wash the trays. There’s also a hope that diners will be encouraged to take smaller servings from the cafeteria line, reducing waste, overall food costs, and health issues related to weight gain.


Photo courtesy of Tkrecu at Flickr.com.