October 11, 2005
Energy Price Shocks Bring Conservation Back In Vogue

High energy prices have sent people looking for ways to reduce heating costs and other energy costs.

Some schools are turning down thermostats, limiting bus service or hiring energy consultants. In Council, Idaho, the schools expect to halve their $10,000 monthly heating bill with a new system that runs on wood chips produced when state crews thin trees along the highways. Last month, Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia closed the schools for two days because school buses were running out of diesel fuel.

In Marengo, Iowa, the county courthouse remains closed on Mondays to give its gas boilers an extra day off, and employees work four 10-hour days. In Marshalltown, Iowa, officials have traded traffic lights for stop signs at six intersections.

Insulation upgrades, shifts to alternative fuels, shifts to more fuel efficient vehicles, and changes to lifestyles are all reported in the article.

The growing role of biomass for heating is the most interesting response. People are turning to biomass heat sources including wood and corn to save money.

Some suppliers of the stoves and the pellets and wood they burn are running out of inventory or hiring extra employees to meet the demand. In Walla Walla, Wash., Chris Neufeld, vice president of Blaze King Industries-USA, said his company had a backlog worth $1 million for stoves that cost about $2,000 apiece.

In Waverly, Ill., Don Magelitz, who sells corn stoves, is more than eight weeks behind on deliveries and has a backlog of 200 orders.

Biomass for heating makes more sense that biomass for ethanol production. When corn is used for heating a far larger fraction of the chemical energy serves a useful purpose. Production of ethanol takes energy to operate the chemical plant and some energy is lost as heat. but when corn is burned inside a building then that heat serves a useful purpose.

I was recently surprised to learn that corn is a very economically competitive source of heating energy. In the comments section of my recent post on ethanol in Brazil you will find a discussion of corn stoves and the economics of different heat energy sources. Unless you happen to have a free source of wood the cheapest heat energy source appears to be corn. A lot of corn stoves have automated corn fuel feeders and thermostats. But most of the models I looked at had bins that stored only a day or two of fuel. Construction of a bigger bin and feeding system would allow a much longer period of time between refuelings. Anyone seriously considering this option should check out the price of corn by the bushel for deliveries of many bushels at a time. You'd also need storage facilities for handling hundreds or thousands of pounds of corn. Ideally the stored corn from a large bin would gravity feed into the corn stove.

Liquid fuels are most needed for transportation. To the extent that corn and other biomass sources displace heating oil for heating they free up a liquid fuel source far better suited for transportation. The heat loss of converting corn to ethanol is avoided. The total amount of energy available is increased. More generally, stationary uses of liquid fuel should be especially targetted for displacement by biomass, solar, nuclear and other sources. Liquid fuel is too valuable for transportation to be wasted in other applications. Currently (as of 2002) 82% of #2 heating oil used in America is used in the American Northeast. Policymakers ought to take notice and encourage migration to other heat energy sources and better insulation in the northeast.

The need for liquid fuel in transportation is also an argument for the development of better battery technology. Eliminate the need for liquid fuel and suddenly many more energy sources such as nuclear, wind, biomass, and photovoltaics could be used to power cars.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 11 10:41 AM  Energy Policy


Comments
Hugh Angell said at October 11, 2005 10:59 AM:

People are going to have to do something. BusinessWeek has an article detailing the woes
of those who have bought homes ( large ones too) in Exurbia, the outlying suburban areas
where growth has been explosive since the housing boom got going.

Lots of square footage to heat and a long commute have left a lot of these new homeowners
very vulnerable to surging fuel prices. Toss in Greenspan's relentless interest rate hikes
and things could get very sticky for them and the banks that lent them money.

Add to the natural gas woes and price hikes now forecast to be 50% on average this winter
( higher in the midwest) and we have a coal problem too. The Powder River Basin has been
having a big problem moving its production for several months owing to a railroad line
washout earlier this year. As if this was not enough along comes this:
http://www.grandforks.com/mld/grandforks/news/12866284.htm

Randall Parker said at October 11, 2005 11:20 AM:

Hugh,

I read that article about the trains. Wow. The United States is getting hit by many energy problems all at once.

odograph said at October 11, 2005 12:40 PM:

I've been amusing myself with calculations of fuel vs. food costs (bike vs. biodiesel).

It seems there might be some similar relations between heating the school with biofuels and heating the student with biofoods. How did people in northern climes traditionally stay warm? Partly by heating the room, but also by eating a lot of fats.

... this is just randmom thoughts, but if we overeat as a nation (high rates of overweight), maybe we are primed to stay warm, and a little less room temperature (within reason) will be good for us.

Mark Plus said at October 12, 2005 3:30 PM:

Sweatshirts and thermal underwear don't cost much, and you can keep warm in a 60-65 F room by wearing three our four layers. I lived that way for several winters in a mountain town in SoCal at 6000' elevation and just three miles from a ski run. Conservatives have ridiculed Jimmy Carter down to today for his cardigan sweater speech, but he did show by example how to function in a reduced energy economy.

odograph said at October 13, 2005 7:56 AM:

Too bad this didn't coincide with the fleece clothing craze of a few years ago ;-).

But just in case my point above wasn't clear, don't install a corn stove ... serve 'em hot corn muffins.

Sumyung Guy said at October 13, 2005 9:21 AM:

quoted from a newspaper article:

"Americans imported $59 billion in goods and services more than they exported in August, up 1.8 percent from July, largely driven by bigger and more expensive imports of energy commodities, according to the Commerce Department. Exports also increased, particularly of big-ticket items like airplanes, but they did not rise enough to keep up with imports."

WHEN are the powers that be (or the American public) going to realize that our dependence on foreign sources of energy is a matter of national security too? When are they going to realize that the fastest thing we could do to make a real difference RIGHT NOW involves conservation and upgrading of equipment to much more energy efficient stuff. Randall's page has article after article on it detailing potential solutions, but what got the biggest boost in the new energy bill that Congress passed a little while back?

Naturegirl said at October 16, 2005 5:54 PM:

One thing that also needs to be done is that image-concious towns (those that worry more about outward appearances than their residents) must pass ordinances (or abolish old ones) so that there are fewer hindrances to installing biomass heating systems. Some towns will not allow these heaters to be installed, no matter how efficient, because of concerns over 'how they might look'. Hey,as long as it is well maintained, who gives a hoot? Personally, I'm starting to look seriously into ways to convert my fireplace, and learning about biomass heating and fuels in general.

The US should become a world leader in biomass research. We have the greatest number of tillable acreage to produce biomass, and it would serve several purposes: lessen dependence on foreign oil, create jobs (manufacture and service of the biomass units and retail sales of burners and fuels), opportunities for farmers to grow crops that don't have to be genetically modified (just burnable, baby!), and others that I'm sure I'm missing.

When it comes to sustainable heating and fuels, the US lags behind Europe in a big way. We've got to stop being so short sighted and start looking toward the future. I look forward to the day when we give our notice to OPEC that they've lost a major customer!

jimcrack said at October 18, 2005 6:59 PM:

i have a feelingpeople have been jerked around so much between gas and oil heat they have been inured to corn stover and other solutions. Few if any homeowners have dual fuel furnaces, so they junk one furnace in favor of another, only to be stuck with whatever fuel, oil or gas, that will double in price within three years. Competition is our problem: that is, not enough competition to force gas and oil and other fuel to compete. Not enough community bargaining power for long term energy pricing (if you know how much gas is in a local field, why should it be so difficult to set a price and a quantity of consumers for 5-10 years?) Not enough meaningful choice in how well your home is constructed, or how to manage HVAC systems, which (with central air duct systems) are 15-30% less efficient than they should be, due to air losses and improper airflow.

I have one idea: buy an electric blanket. it's better to heat yourself than an entire house, particularly if you confine yourself to bed for 7 hours without getting up, and don't care what it's doing outside for most of the 7 hours.

jimcrack said at October 18, 2005 7:00 PM:

i have a feelingpeople have been jerked around so much between gas and oil heat they have been inured to corn stover and other solutions. Few if any homeowners have dual fuel furnaces, so they junk one furnace in favor of another, only to be stuck with whatever fuel, oil or gas, that will double in price within three years. Competition is our problem: that is, not enough competition to force gas and oil and other fuel to compete. Not enough community bargaining power for long term energy pricing (if you know how much gas is in a local field, why should it be so difficult to set a price and a quantity of consumers for 5-10 years?) Not enough meaningful choice in how well your home is constructed, or how to manage HVAC systems, which (with central air duct systems) are 15-30% less efficient than they should be, due to air losses and improper airflow.

I have one idea: buy an electric blanket. it's better to heat yourself than an entire house, particularly if you confine yourself to bed for 7 hours without getting up, and don't care what it's doing outside for most of the 7 hours.

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