Alternative Fuel Cheaper, But Still Not Popular

Fuel oil and natural gas prices are expected to rise sharply this winter, but that is of little concern to homeowners who can reach for a shovelful of corn to heat their homes.

More than 2.4 million households, or 2.3 percent of all homes surveyed, used non-standard heating fuels last season such as coal, firewood, wood pellets and even corn, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (search).

That number is down slightly from 2002, and alternative fuels are not about to knock off standard fuels any time soon. Gas was used to heat more than half of all occupied homes last year and electricity heated almost one-third of homes. Fuel oil and kerosene were used in 8.6 percent of households.

But homeowners who made the switch said their way is often cheaper, or cleaner, or both.

For example, Mark Flory said he spent about $2.50 a day last year — or $350 for the whole season — for the five gallons of corn it takes to heat his Takoma Park, Md. home every day.

"It worked out really well because . . . the price of natural gas has been skyrocketing," said Flory, the president of the Save Our Sky Home-Heating Cooperative (search). The 28 households in Flory's neighborhood cooperative also cite the environmental benefits of corn heat, saying it burns clean and produces no air pollution.

The corn-burning co-op homes are only a few of the 422,634 homes that used alternative sources of fuel last winter, according to Census estimates. The bureau's survey also said that 1.84 million homes burned wood for heat, more than 156,000 used coal or coke and 35,000-plus used solar energy.

About 914,000 homes reported using no heating fuel at all. All those homeowners have one big advantage — low energy costs. While some point to environmental benefits, pocketbook concerns generally trump all other motivations, said Charles Miller, research manager at the Maryland Energy Administration.

"Economics drive all fuels, believe me," Miller said.

For example, a ton of wood pellets — about a 50-day supply for a typical home — can be purchased for $117 to $142 in the Mid-Atlantic region, said Denise McDonald, member services associate at the Pellet Fuels Institute (search). Miller said wood pellets are currently the most popular type of alternative heating fuel in Maryland.

But coal sells for even less, said Richard Schwinabart, owner of D & L Coal Co. in Bloomington, Md. One ton costs $45 and can heat a home for four to six weeks, he said.

Wood sellers said they can heat a home for four to six weeks on a single cord of wood. Carolyn Zell, whose family owns Frederick Wood Products, also in Maryland, said that the wood they get from Pennsylvania costs about $165 per cord. State officials said that is about average.

Wood can be an even better deal for homeowners who live where it is plentiful, or who can collect it from their own property, said Bruce James, director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at the University of Maryland (search).

"In forested parts of the state, people are still burning wood because it's relatively cheap, and they may be cutting it on their own," he said.

But low prices do not appear to be enough to get more people to switch to non-standard fuels. Use has declined in every category since 2000, according to the Census Bureau estimates.

During the same period, the number of homes heated with electricity rose 1.2 percent and the number of gas-heated homes — whether delivered in a utility's pipeline, in a bottle or tank, or in the form of liquid propane — jumped 10 percent.

James said that environmental issues may keep some people from switching to coal or wood — fuels that are known to emit harmful substances into the air. Convenience is another factor that could be keeping more homeowners from switching, he said.

"It's just inconvenient compared to natural gas that comes directly to your home, or the oil man coming to your house," James said. "There's a lot more handling of the fuel and constant replenishing to heat your home."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.