While Promoting Climate Change and Resource Depletion

This is an article by Larry Tabor of Palisades, New York, a long-time subscriber and commentator on the woodheat email discussion group. Larry is not a professional in the wood heat field, but is a well-informed user and a friend of woodheat.org and The Woodpile.

I got serious about cutting gas heating costs after losing my job as a research scientist last year, but now I’m paying more for each unit of natural gas delivered to my house. This was odd, so I had to look a little deeper. After some investigation I found that we are paying a lot more for each hundred cubic feet (CCF) of natural gas than our neighbors because we use so much less than they do. I’m being penalized for conserving gas, so my local gas utility is working against me.

We now use firewood to supply most of our heating, and this is after we had already cut heating costs by about twenty percent through our investments in insulation. In the U.S. Northeast where we live, heating is a major household expense that can run anywhere from six to twenty per cent of an average household budget, depending on the fuel you use.

The business model of gas suppliers works against the geologists, ecologists, governments and me.

Considering my employment situation, and the fact that I’m a technical kind of guy, it was worth my time to get serious about wood heating as a way to cut costs.

I started by reviewing our household heating patterns over the past four years. I calculated that we used about 65 million BTUs (British Thermal Units) each winter to keep the house warm. Given the type of wood that is available in my area, this meant that I would need about four full cords of wood to cover our home heating requirements. So last summer I collected four cords of wood and stacked it so that it would have time to season before winter arrived.

I also installed a small fan and duct system to even out the house temperature now that the central forced-air furnace wouldn’t be used continuously. The system moves cool air from the bed rooms to the living room of our ranch-style house where the wood stove is located. Warm air naturally flows back to the bedroom area to complete the circulation pattern. It is a mechanical solution to a poorly designed house.

During this past winter, I executed my wood energy supplementary heating plan. The result is that wood heat replaced more than 75 percent of our total heating needs, and I will save roughly $1000 on our household budget, which I think is a good result. My mission was accomplished.

High delivery charges almost double our cost per CCF compared to big users.High delivery charges almost double our cost per CCF compared to big users.But because I am using less natural gas than my neighbors, I am paying a lot more per CCF, as shown in the table. We used between 24 and 36 CCF per month throughout the winter, of which about 14 CCF each month is related to water heating and cooking.

Natural gas is a commodity, and its price over this winter has remained fairly flat due to the supply to the market and the aftermath of the recession. I am not being charged more for the natural gas itself, only on the delivery portion, but it ends up being a whopping surcharge.

My supplier imposes a tiered pricing system on top of the basic service charges and taxes. In this up-side-down market, I can get a high-volume discount on the delivery of natural gas, which is ultimately a finite resource. If fossil energy pricing made sense, wouldn’t it cost more to deliver higher volumes of natural gas through the pipe that is already in my yard? If the idea of energy conservation was anything more than empty talk, higher natural gas consumption should be more expensive to deliver.

Stacking firewood to dry for next winter.Stacking firewood to dry for next winter.I’m sure the serious people at the marketing department of my local utility would patiently explain to me that the charges are designed to pay for the infrastructure. If everyone cut consumption the way this household has, I can hear them saying, the utility would loose money. That may be true in a simplistic way, but here is an equally simple idea: It is nuts to maintain a pricing system that promotes increased natural gas consumption at a time like this.

Scientists warn that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, and politicians say we should become less dependent on fossil energy, yet there isn’t the political will to implement measures that would reduce energy consumption. Independent petroleum geologists remind us that oil and gas reserves are finite and, as reserves are depleted, their costs rise. The business model of gas suppliers works against the geologists, ecologists, governments and me.

We usually assume the free market sets our energy prices, but shouldn’t the natural gas (and electric) markets operate in a way that would promote more sensible energy use? Maybe now is the time for our local public service commission to approve a delivery fee structure that will lower natural gas usage by making it more painful to consume more. That would encourage everyone to participate in reducing energy usage.

It should not take a recession (or in my case, job loss) to convince people to use less carbon-based energy. Overall, less energy usage would lower everyone’s costs, as well as increase the amount of time we have until reserves are depleted. Encouraging more efficient heating equipment and increased levels of insulation is a step in the right direction. However, the pay back has to be real, and one of the best ways to do that is to make higher fuel usage more costly.