Sunday, April 20, 2008

Disaster in progress: North America's home heating transition

With natural gas prices creeping higher on a daily basis, some homeowners dependent on natural gas for heat are starting to look for cheaper alternatives. In my area the outdoor wood burning furnace which is designed to supplement existing home heating has become a major source of friction among suburban residents.

The main complaint is the smoke produced by these furnaces as they heat water that is then pumped to the owner's house where a heat exchanger disperses the heat. A loophole in U. S. Environmental Protection Agency rules has left such furnaces unregulated though many municipalities and states are now seeking to ban them or at least regulate them. Part of the problem is that some furnace owners don't just burn wood; sometimes they burn household trash. Emissions from these furnaces have been measured by one government agency and the results are rather startling:
A 2006 report from the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a nonprofit association of Northeast air quality agencies, found that average particulate emissions from one outdoor wood boiler equaled that of 22 wood stoves, 205 oil furnaces or as many as 8,000 natural gas furnaces.

The last wood heating craze occurred in the 1970s and abated when energy prices plunged and stayed mired in a 20-year bear market. But this time natural gas may be heading for a permanent decline in North America, and many homeowners throughout the United States and Canada will be scrambling for a more affordable source of home heat.

In rural areas, wood heat may become more widespread. But in heavily urbanized areas, coal may be the fuel of choice. It remains cheap relative to natural gas, and it is abundant. Moreover, some of the same manufacturers who make outdoor wood burning furnaces also make versions that will burn coal. Even indoor coal-burners are already available for homeowners. Finally, there are indoor and outdoor grain-burning furnaces.

The move to alternative sources of heat will put pressure on the remaining forests in North America as demand for wood and wood products for burning increases. This transition will also threaten the climate and air quality as coal-burning expands, and it has the potential to push grain prices even higher as homeowners compete for increasingly scarce grain to feed grain-burning furnaces. Electricity may also become a source of heat via portable electric space heaters, especially in the case of an acute crisis, and their use could potentially threaten the electrical grid.

There is, of course, solar space and water heating, and some people who have the resources will choose these options. But these options are not necessarily optimal for retrofitting in much of North America, and they can be costly to install (but not to run).

Neither heating oil nor kerosene will likely turn out to be good alternatives. Oil prices seem almost certain to remain high as we approach the all-time peak in world oil production. Propane, butane and liquefied petroleum gas (generally a combination of the first two) are simply products of natural gas wells and so will face the same depletion problems and price pressures as natural gas.

The alternative to this unfolding disaster would be an aggressive, subsidized energy efficiency retrofitting program for North American homes and a campaign to get people to use less natural gas by changing their behavior. But neither the Canadian nor the U. S. government seems even vaguely aware of the approaching crisis.

When an acute crisis arrives in the form of a very cold winter or a persistent decline in natural gas production, the result will inevitably be serious demand destruction. Many more homeowners will gravitate away from natural gas because of price uncertainties. Perhaps not so obvious is that whole industries dependent on natural gas for process heat or as a chemical feedstock will be forced to shut down and, where possible, may move operations closer to sources of cheap natural gas overseas, possibly to the Middle East or even to Russia where supplies remain abundant. (In fact, this has already happened for much of the nitrogen fertilizer industry and for parts of the chemical industry.)

The damage to the economy and the environment will be immense. And, the tragedy of it all will be that it could have been avoided or at least greatly mitigated by a sensible conservation program.


Nick said...

Aesthetics and efficiency are still extant, but not insurmountable, hurdles to widespread acceptance of electrical heating.

As a renter in Kalamazoo, I am currently dealing with the tradeoff between electric heating and hot water and the natural gas alternative. I live in an apartment building with electric heat, and in my first month of residence alone (March) used 1300 kWh. For two college students who take 5 minute showers, leave the heat on at 65 (if at all), and have laptop computers for entertainment, I was horrified. Efficiency issues need to be addressed before I willingly purchase an electric furnace for my own home.

In regards to cooking, the benefits of gas stoves over standard, resistance-style electric stovetops are immense. I've never used an induction stovetop, but I hear they have the aesthetics (heat control, etc) of natural gas, with twice the efficiency. Plus, they are electric, but without the terrible "resistance heating" of traditional electric stovetops. Expense is a problem, and discount rates really kill the cost/ benefit analysis. An extra $1000 today to save a few dollars/ month is a difficult pill to swallow. Gas prices are helping, but induction cookers might still only be for the technophiles among us.


Rice Farmer said...

Space heating is a serious problem. Many people will certainly be reduced to burning whatever they can get their hands on, including trash, to keep warm. The problem will be most acute in big cities.

But there are some ways to mitigate the situation. First is efficiency. I live in the Japanese countryside and have a wood stove. It's one of the modern types with a catalyst, so once the stove is warmed up, I close the damper and a mid-sized chunk of wood lasts several hours. Another advantage is that we can boil water and cook at the same time, which considerably lowers our propane bill. (And the ashes go out to the garden.) Thus, high-efficiency heating devices can help a lot.

But what's more important is this: we heat only one room, not the whole house. In Japan, people heat only the rooms they are using. There's no heat at night. In fact, traditionally in Japan there is basically no space heating, because the idea is that you heat people, not spaces. Thus the kotatsu,
the hot bath, the hibachi, etc. These are ways of heating people, not spaces.

As a native of the US, I see this American penchant for luxurious space heating to be a serious impediment to sustainability, or just weathering peak oil. If Americans want to get through this, they need to give up central heating and adopt the Japanese model. To Americans this sounds like heresy, because they believe they are entitled to extravagant energy consumption and shirt-sleeve temperatures in the dead of winter. The outdoor wood boiler you cite is an example of how people are trying to prop up their extravagant central heating systems. Obviously, this is going to end in disaster because there's not going to be enough fuel for everyone.

Anonymous said...

People are going to start burning everything they can get their hands on.

Try stopping them.


yooper said...

Hello Curt, Your thought about, "the move to alternative heating sources will put pressure on the REMAINING forests in North America as demand for wood and wood products for burning increases", is at best misleading.

Did you know that the Michigan forest is larger now than it likely has ever been? In fact, it's older and has more volume than at any time when records began (early 1900's). This is not only true here in Michigan, but Wisconsin and many other states. This is by the way, close to a 100 year trend, why would you think this trend would suddenly "reverse" now?

In fact, if everyone started to burn wood for heat here in the U.P. (if not the whole State?), our forest would continue to grow. Isn't that just fasincating? Why? You might wonder. It is because there's another 50 year trend (at least) in the making, that is demand for wood and wood products is declining.

Thanks, yooper

Kevin said...

I've been thinking about this for a long time and have decided that my aging oil furnace will be replaced by a ground-source heat pump, which is more efficient, has a longer life, and lower maintenance requirements than an air-source heat pump. Granted, I'll still be reliant on the electricity grid, but a 2-3 KW solar rooftop plus solar hot water heating help. Nevetheless, I'm still considering a low-emission, efficient wood stove as a backup in case the grid goes down. As for cooking, perhaps we all can learn something from the Raw Foods movement and from low-temperature cooking.

mlwinkle said...

We have had a ground-source heat pump for about 5 years. It provides all our space heating. We also have an air-source heat pump water heater, which provides all our water heating. At the same time that we had the heat pumps put in I made major improvements in windows, leak sealing, and insulation. I also added a 3 kW PV system. For the past 5 years we have achieved zero-net electricity use (actually an approximately 2% surplus). We do very high efficiency cooking and use about 5 therms a year of natural gas for cooking and about 1 therm per year for very infrequent gas clothes drying. Our annual space heating electricity use is about 1500 kWh in a climate with about 5000 heating degree-days per year. Our annual water heating energy use (for 2 adults) is about 650 kWh.

One possible solution for the problem that Kurt identified of extra load on the grid from electric heating is thermal energy storage. When this is combined with a timer or even better combined with a smart grid the impact on the grid can be minimized.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cobb,

Thank you for writing this article, the word needs to get out. I would suspect our only saving grace is that we are so wasteful! Once we do start an aggressive conservation campaign, and we will when the crunch comes, it will be easy to get ahead of the diminishing supply, for a while.... By the way, an in-depth discussion of this problem is covered in the book, The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler, 2005.
SG in Virginia

yooper said...

Hello Kurt, I'm so dissappointed in this article.... You bet, it's a "Disaster in progress", if you don't mind me saying so....

You state,"But niether the Canadian nor the U.S. goverment seems vaguely aware of the approaching crisis". Is this another one of your outlandish assumptions?! Are you also going to group all the dedicated goverment professionals (who have been screaming at the top of their lungs, that our society isn't sustainable), in that heading? I hope not, that would be a slap in the face! If you mean "politicians" then you say, "politicians". To suggest that these two goverments are not aware of the approaching crisis, is absurd. Where have you been?

I like the gist of your article, but you're making far too many assumptions, that I'm comfortable with.

Thanks, yooper

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks to those who provided excellent ideas about how to respond to our impending home heating crisis. We need all the ideas we can get.

To Yooper,

Naturally, there are many good people in government who are very, very concerned about how unsustainable our society is. James Hansen comes to mind. But you take me too literally. When I speak of the American and Canadian governments I am thinking of the current Bush and Harper administrations who have done absolutely nothing to address the natural gas crisis.

As for the forest, you are correct about the trend in forest cover in the United States. But that trend is largely a product of two things: the movement of farming from the eastern United States to the the Great Plains and the use of fossil fuels in place of biofuels, in this case trees. If you have ever visited Walden Pond in Massachusetts, you were probably enchanted by all the lovely trees that surround it now. But if you read Thoreau's Walden you will realize that by the time Thoreau lived there in the mid-1800s, most of the trees had been chopped down. As fossil fuels decline, we will again be reaching for biofuels to provide energy. Ethanol is a good example.

If you look in countries that have been too poor to afford much oil and natural gas in the last few decades such as Haiti and Afghanistan, the forest cover has almost been eliminated as the population has cut down the forest just to get fuel.

I hope you are correct that we will choose not to destroy our remaining forests. (I say remaining because practically the entire continent, except for the Great Plains, was forested when the first Europeans arrived.)

Guy Fox said...

Here in Honolulu there is a constant $truggle to meet fresh water needs and energy demands for the ever growing population on Oahu. According to the $tatus quo and the Honolulu $tar Bulletin newespaper (a.k.a.: the Honolulu Advertiser) more growth is progress (in lieu of cancer).

Being an anarchist and a political $ub-versive, I agree! Indeed! I think the $tatus quo here in Hawaii should get everything they desire. So... ah... what about nuclear power? Eh?

Since nuclear power is supposed-lie too cheap to meter and wonder-fool-lie clean, we anarchists have been actively proposing the construction of a massive nuclear power plant near Diamond Head. The nuclear waste products could be $afe-lie $tored in a nearby dormant volcano... or maybe shipped of to Los Angeles and used for paving roads and freeways.


yooper said...

Hello Kurt, Perhaps I was a bit hard on you, I'm sorry. However, I still don't think we're seeing the same picture yet. This is understandable as I believe there's not 100 people in this nation, who have came to this conclusion and what it might mean in the future...

What's happened here in Michigan, might I suggest is happening almost everywhere in the continental U.S.? This kind of information isn't for everyone and I'd like to be sensitive to that. You're free to draw your own conclusions. It's extremely hard to believe, let alone accept.

I agree with your thoughts about deforestation in Haiti and Afghanistan. However, these countries are not what I'd call, "industrialized" and to make any comparisions of the dynamics of those countries to what may happen in the U.S., might be a stretch of the imagination.

Please, carefully read the following reponses I've made recently. Feel free to contact me, if you like to discuss any part of it.

Sincerely, yooper

Succession and Civilization
Mon, 04/14/2008 - 20:34 — yooper
Hello Kentar, perhaps another spin on it, that I related awhile back on the Archdruid's.....

At 9/28/07 2:53 PM, yooper said...
Thanks, John. Very much enjoyed,"Civilization and Succession". Gee, it was'nt me who decribed you as being ever optimistic, was it? Again, I hope you're right. Yes, Sharon does have a vast knowledge of "old timey" subsistence living.

I really like your analogy of forest succession. Did you know,that Michigan's forest is larger than it has likely ever been? This is scientific fact. It contains more boardfoot of fiber now, than at anytime ever recorded. Put another way, this forest is much larger and older, than when visited by the first Europeans. You might find this very hard to believe, as does most everyone else.

You see John, we've become very proficient at putting out fire. Before european settlement, natural succession went pretty much undisturbed. Unlike your bulldozed lot, this natural succession usually was started by a lightening stike. Hugh wildfires would sweep through entire regions, and the cycle would begin again. As you suggested, sometimes a whole new enviroment,(such as a cedar stand)would develop that would support species, best suited to that enviroment.

However, in order for that to happen, this new enviroment to be utilized, must'nt be too "isolated",(here we go again, eh John?). That is, the distance between the two alike enviroments must be obtinable, within reach, by these spieces to impregnate it.

An example of this might be the sharptailed grouse. It was never a native bird of Michigan, until the vast logging of the lands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, formed a bridge to the stable enviroment out west, where this bird is native.

Furthermore, once the distance of like enviroments cannot be breached, become isolated, the extinction process begins for those speices that cannot adapt.

Back to the sharp-tailed grouse, this spieces is facing extinction today here in Michgan because the distance between like enviroments are to great. There is no bridge.

Yes John,(as you know) I find what you said,"to look to ecological patterns among other living things for clues to the driving forces behind equivalent process in human societies", very agreeable.

Am I suggesting that the human industrail societies will end like the sharp-tailed grouse in Michigan? Absolutely! There can be no other way. We MUST adapt, to the new enviroment, or die...

Thanks, yooper

reply flag this Revsersible?
Mon, 04/14/2008 - 23:26 — yooper
Btw, if there is no bridge, there is no reversible. Moral of the story? Don't ever burn your bridges behind you! Or, really think about doing something, you can't undo......

edit reply flag this Scientific Fact
Mon, 04/14/2008 - 22:12 — yooper
Perhaps, a little follow up, that I alluded to on BNB last year. I've thousands of hours invested studying and researching, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare and their enviroment.

It came quite the surprize to me and others that these two speicies, were projected to die-off and become extinct here in Northern Michigan. Not only was this suggested by the scientific society, but accepted, as the most likely course, within the next 100 years. Unlike deer and racoons who adapt well, these spiecies do not. None the less, this grouse and hare have been native to the area for thousands of years, perhaps more. Why now?, I asked myself.

A very exhaustive investigative project was launched that lasted for over a year in the making. In cooperation of at least three govermental agencies and under the headline of at least two different socities, I was "priviledged" to gain access to "sensitive" information from the Washington Archieves and records kept by the agencies.

Limiting the reaseach to the past 100 years, when records pretty much began (here we go again Kentar, making that distinction with that 100 yr. span of events, again and again), pouring over this information and viewing aerial photography,(which began in the late 1920's). The land was photographed at different intervials in time, and finally comparing this to satellite images of today, a pattern soon emerged.

If this trend was to continue, and it's strongly suggested it will (it's only lasted 100 years!), one can only come to the very same conclusions of this scientific communtity, concerning this area.

As "horrific" as this vision has been for me, I suppose to some people this might be "more natural". However, I have a very strong message to these people, this "image" does not include "them".

Just Some Guy said...

I've noticed little mention of geothermal heating systems as a beneficial (albeit capital intensive) alternative to heating a home. I live in Michigan and have a large family (8 people) with a correspondingly large home (3400 sq ft). The house is situated with many south facing windows. We employ heavy curtains to maximize passive solar gain during the day and minimize heat loss during the long winter nights. The real key though is the geothermal system. All of our appliances are electric (cooking, refrigeration, washer/dryer, water heater, etc) and none of the appliances are what I'd consider energy efficient (most are pretty darned old), yet our total utility bill for the optimal weather months (April, Oct) is $130 - $140 per month. During the hottest summer months, our total utility bill increases to $165 - $170. During the coldest months of the year, the worst it has ever been was $270 and the average winter utility bill is $235. The irony is that my parents' house is located two hours south of us and is half the square footage, yet their utility bills are more than double ours, mostly due to the cost of heating with nat gas.

The initial costs of installing a geothermal system are significantly higher than a natural gas furnace, but the long life (20+ years) and the superior operating economics over the life of the unit will prove to be a wise investment. We're reaping the rewards already and nat gas isn't even expensive yet.