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Alternatives to Heating Your House in the Winter

 Spare Change News (USA) 17 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) The rise in heating costs is being felt across the country with the cold weather most of the United States has had this winter. With more and more people applying for assistance with their heating bills, organisations have less money to give out to each person. Coupled with rising costs of oil per barrel, America and other parts of the world are faced with a real crisis. Andrew Zarins takes a look at some alternative energy for heating homes in the winter and ponders what we will do in the future to stop the rising energy costs.  - By Andrew Zarins

When Mother-Nature Gets Hot, Everyone Burns


A couple of weeks ago, I read a caption for a photograph in the Home & Garden section of the <i>New York Times</i> that seemed crazy.  It read "Justen Ladda, a sculptor, revels in the chill of the unheated Lower East Side loft where he has lived for three decades. He is one of a small group of Americans who live nearly without heat by choice. Why they stick it out, and how they cope, are object lessons in creative adaptation fuelled by thrift, environmentalism and a commitment to unique real estate."


The caption referred to an artsy photo of the sculptor sitting in a nouveau-modish studio, on a chic swivel-stool, hunched over a cup, and visibly breathing. It was all fairly romantic: an artist in New York City's most trendy neighbourhood thriving off what causes most people to shiver at the mere thought of.  It even got me thinking about embracing the cold as cool. But not one week later I heard an interview on the radio that ripped any remnants of this idea right out of my head. It was about heating in New England, its rising cost, and the more than 15,000 people in metro Boston at risk of losing it.


The last few years have seen increases and decreases in seemingly all the wrong categories. And energy is no different. Since Hurricane Katrina hit the southern part of the United States in 2005, oil prices have doubled to almost $72 per barrel for crude oil and are expected to reach $83 by February of 2011. According to the <i>Farmer's Almanac</i>, winter temperatures this year will be below average for 75% of the United States, which means we will see either an increase in people like Justen Ladda who go without heat or more than likely we will see an increase in the number of families with heating bill issues.


This year, the Boston, Massachusetts based group Action for Boston Community Development, or ABCD, reported a 20% increase in fuel assistance applications. As New England's largest social service organization, ABCD now helps over 20,000 low-income families pay for heating in the winter months.


"The problem is that fuel prices go up but the poor stay poor," says John Wells ABCD's real estate and energy services vice president.  The last two years the Federal government has allocated $5.1 billion to the state of Massachusetts for heating fuel aid, an $80 check per ABCD home. But in the winter, especially in one that is as cruel as this one, that's just a drop in the tank.


On average, a household will go through three to four 250-gallon tanks of fuel per season, at $600-$700 per tank. "For a family making $1000 per month, that number is just too high," says Mr. Wells. The number of people that need help will only increase if winters become subsequently more unbearable.


"Beyond 3 to 5 years, I think there will be some serious sustained price spikes [in oil] if we do not accelerate our adoption of alternatives to oil," says MIT lecturer Todd Hynes.  Until 2008, Mr. Hynes worked at Citizens Energy, a company that provides affordable heating oil to low-income families. Mr. Hynes says that although the United States is still is the world's dominant oil consumer, it's more than likely that China will overtake us within the next few years.


"With China now buying more cars than the US and a $2,500 car available in China, they will begin to become larger consumers, no question," says Mr. Hynes. The US now consumes about 18.5 million barrels of oil per day, compared to 21.6 million in 2005.


At the current rate of prices, companies such as ABCD and Citizens Energy will have more trouble helping people pay for heat. The $5.1 billion of Washington money will get stretched out over more and more people until it becomes a penny check per family.  Mr. Hynes thinks it is important to look at the future.  "We have to start seriously investing in efficiency and setting long term goals."


In rural areas, pellet heat is an alternative to oil. Pellets are made from sawdust, woodchips, agricultural waste, bark, and garbage from landfills. They look like dog food. According to WD Pellet and PelletKing, the average home spends around $600 per season on pellets compared to $3000 for oil. Many European countries have used pellets for years and, according to the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources, around 800,000 homes in the United States are heated with pellets. The problem is that pellets cannot be used in urban areas because of their impact on air quality.


Mr. Hynes points out that there are some restrictions to pellet heat.  "These impacts are significantly less than burning regular wood for heat, but I think natural gas and solar thermal is better for urban areas, as there are some air quality impacts with pellet heat."


But perhaps the best known and most effective ways to solve the problem are with efficiency improvements and with solar energy, though not necessarily with solar panels. "ABCD has weatherized 600-700 homes," Mr.  Wells says, "but solar panels are not something we do regularly." The Green Communities Act of 2008 did change environmental rules and regulations in Massachusetts, but many of the changes concern only governmental agencies. Because many buildings in the Boston area are over 100 years old, they may lack modern insulation, therefore letting out too much heat and energy. If new building codes and regulations are created, houses can be built to maximum efficiency and heating costs can be lowered dramatically.


It is clear that not only New England, and not only America, but the entire world faces an energy problem that, if not solved quickly, will leave us flat footed. Our winters are cold and they've been trending colder with global climate change, and fuel isn't getting cheaper. So, continuing in the same direction in which we are now going is simply heading toward a dead end. There's no way around it. We can either embrace the elements like Justen Ladda or we can change our direction so that we can stay around a little longer and worry a little less.

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