December 27, 2008
Residential Use Of Coal Up In United States

Bad news for the environment:

Burning coal at home was once commonplace, of course, but the practice had been declining for decades. Coal consumption for residential use hit a low of 258,000 tons in 2006 then started to rise. It jumped 9 percent in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration, and 10 percent more in the first eight months of 2008.

Online coal forums are buzzing with activity, as residential coal enthusiasts trade tips and advice for buying and tending to coal heaters. And manufacturers and dealers of coal-burning stoves say they have been deluged with orders many placed when the price of heating oil jumped last summer that they are struggling to fill.

In the United States wood burning stoves are more regulated than coal burning stoves for residential heating. That should change. Coal contains more toxins (e.g. mercury) than wood and so burning coal is worse than burning wood in residences. At least when coal is used in big electric power generation plants the expertise and capital are available to burn it very cleanly - if only the regulations were tough enough to require extremely clean coal burning for electric power generation.

Burning coal saves a lot of money for houses in colder areas. For people who are spending thousands of dollars per winter on heating oil the use of coal can cut out most of those costs.

Coals vary in quality, but on average, a ton of coal contains about as much potential heat as 146 gallons of heating oil or 20,000 cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. A ton of anthracite, a particularly high grade of coal, can cost as little as $120 near mines in Pennsylvania. The equivalent amount of heating oil would cost roughly $380, based on the most recent prices in the state and over $470 using prices from December 2007. An equivalent amount of natural gas would cost about $480 at current prices.

Ground sink heat pumps, insulation upgrades, solar heating systems, and other cleaner alternatives are environmentally better than coal for heating. Anyone who is thinking about installing a coal heater ought to investigate alternatives. Coal is much less convenient. The need to empty out the ash on a daily basis and to shovel coal into feeders is also more laborious. Plus, coal requires constant residence in a house to prevent freezing up.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 December 27 11:36 PM  Energy Heating

dave.s. said at December 28, 2008 5:20 AM:

Every thing you said is on target. I want to add - I had a coal stove, twenty years ago in Cambridge Mass. It stank up the neighborhood: when I was walking home from the subway and I had the stove going, I could smell my smoke from two blocks away. Wood is a far better alternative, if you are doing a solid fuel and are close enough to a wood lot that you don't burn more energy getting it to your home than the difference between its price and that of natural gas.

tom bri said at December 28, 2008 11:30 AM:

I grew up with a coal furnace-heated home. Lots of inconvenience.

Bruce said at December 28, 2008 3:22 PM:

Inconvenient, yes. But-

I see ads saying 'There's no such thing as clean coal'.
And there is. You put a greenhouse on the end of the chimney.
Maybe bubble hot smoke through water full of green slime,
maybe just cover enough acres of grass with plastic.

It would work one house at a time, too.

What lawyers are blackmailing the power companies with these
ads? (I'm an Ameren/cilco customer; you could stick every
Ameren executive in jail and I'd be cool. But the
greenhouse thing would work. Why don't they do it?)

Randall Parker said at December 28, 2008 3:39 PM:


Cleaning up coal exhaust costs money. Even with a greenhouse at the end it would cost very large sums. It wouldn't work well in winter (if at all) without energy diverted to lighting and warmth.

Cleaning up coal exhaust from a single residence dwelling would be far more expensive per unit of pollution removed because there's no economy of scale. It is better to burn coal in a big facility where the economies of scale lower the cost of cleaning up the exhaust.

I hope regulations on all coal burners get much tougher.

Paul F. Dietz said at December 28, 2008 4:47 PM:

The greenhouse idea might work, if you don't plan to operate your furnace at night.

Randall Parker said at December 28, 2008 4:58 PM:

Paul F. Dietz,

The problem with coal for heating is that winter has the least amount of sunlight and the most need for the greenhouse to filter the coal heater exhaust. Also, nights are when heating is most needed. In theory one could store up heat during the day by heating up water or lead. But that just raises total systems cost.

Also, the greenhouse requires labor to plant and harvest. Most people can't be bothered.

A greenhouse works better for a coal electric power plant that seems its most heavy use in summer afternoons. But coal electric is usually baseload and runs 12 months per year.

Severe insulation, ground sink heat pumps, and south-facing double-paned argon windows make a lot more sense. And use wood or corn to burn if something must be burned.

b said at December 28, 2008 6:12 PM:

you must learn to gasify the coal, you americans! coal ist sehr gut!

Paul F. Dietz said at December 28, 2008 6:27 PM:

Apparently I need to add tags. :)

JoeKing said at December 28, 2008 6:45 PM:

The 800lb. gorilla in the room is...people are willing to SACRIFICE their environmental consciences when it is CHEAPER!

If you think ANYONE is going to FREEZE their a$$es off in the name of mother earth..reality check time. When you're faced with the choice of whether you're cold or a good little steward of the planet guess what YOU will ALWAYS do?

If Mr. Obama thinks his "price signals" are going to fly when people aren't able to afford to heat their homes...he better get ready of approval ratings Mr. Bush's never sunk too..and/or major civil disobediance.

The truth is...when a society can afford the "luxury" of defending the environment they will..but mess with their food & shelter.....

Greg said at December 28, 2008 7:21 PM:

I just installed a coal stove in the basement. It's an auxiliary source of heat (primary is oil), so the inconvenience of having to keep it up and running all the time isn't there. The oil heater kicks in automatically when there's not enough heat from coal. Besides, I did a heat storage (styrofoam-insulated water-filled 55gal drums) that can keep a two days' supply of heat, so I only have to tend to the system once a couple of days. Heat storage is not a big deal - it's about $1K in materials and a couple of days labor.

Fat Man said at December 28, 2008 9:16 PM:

No drilling for oil, no drilling for gas, no pipelines, no high voltage transmission wires, no nukes, and no "renewables" (now shortlisted to wind and solar; which are an ultra-expensive pipe-dream only available in selected parts of the country), so folks burn coal to stay warm. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences environmentalists.

averros said at December 29, 2008 3:11 AM:

Use of coal goes up? Must be global warming, heh.

JH said at December 29, 2008 7:43 AM:

Saying that heat pumps and solar alternatives are cheaper and more convenient
than installing a coal stove as an auxiliary source of heat (I would guess
this is most residential use) does not seem plausible.

I have a wood pellet stove, since I paid so much for propane this year, I burn
it a lot to compensate. If I had gotten a steal on propane I probably would use it
less. This is the simple household economic trade-off that most families engage
in instinctively.

Randall Parker said at December 29, 2008 9:35 AM:


I'm not saying heat pumps are cheaper. It probably depends on where you are (since electricity costs, coal costs and availability, wood costs, temperature gradient for air source heat pump, available ground water table for ground sink heat pump, and other factors differ by location).

Also, the pay-back time for ground sink heat pumps is probably longer because the total capital investment is longer. People with either more money or greater willingness to invest for the long term are more likely to choose ground sink heat pumps.

My point is that if you are about to start polluting your neighborhood with coal or wood burning please consider alternatives.


How much can you cut costs with insulation? Have you considered heat pumps?

Greg said at December 29, 2008 11:29 AM:


I have a water-based heat pump, although it is a small one (5K BTUH), and I have a good insulation in my main house. The thing is, my father-in-law lives in an old section of the house which is not well-insulated and cannot be easily improved in that respect, and, in spite of being small, it is the primary consumer of heat. That's what I'm heating with coal.
I got the coal for free, so this beats any other energy source.

Feodor said at December 29, 2008 3:06 PM:

Hysteria over coal is self defeating, and absurd. Old style combustion of coal is going away except in China, India, and the primitive nations. Coal contains much needed energy. There are clean ways of getting at that energy that do not involve ordinary combustion. Pursue those ways, and save your countries from the death of energy scarcity and oil/gas blackmail.

Environmentalists are killing you and you let out not a peep of resistance. The US even elected a president who supports a no reliable energy policy. Suicide.

randee cooke said at January 2, 2009 7:20 AM:

-Not Suicide-
The Obama-Biden comprehensive New Energy for America plan will:

Provide short-term relief to American families facing pain at the pump
Help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.
Within 10 years save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined.
Put 1 million Plug-In Hybrid cars -- cars that can get up to 150 miles per gallon -- on the road by 2015, cars that we will work to make sure are built here in America.
Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Randall Parker said at January 2, 2009 9:20 AM:

randee cooke,

How will Obama's plan "Provide short-term relief to American families facing pain at the pump"? Is he going to subsidize gasoline purchases?

Why do that with gasoline so cheap? Plus, relieving pain at the pump encourages consumption, which I think is the opposite of what he wants to accomplish.

Randee Cooke said at January 26, 2009 9:24 AM:

Obama's plan does not include subsidizing gasoline purchases, nor does it in any way encourage a rate of consumption that exceeds the current rate.
The plan is to ease the pain for American families with a $1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate to. I will say I believe this to be a very temporary bandage on a much bigger problem... but with the current situation I believe it makes the most sense of all the ideas that have been put on the table.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2009 7:56 PM:

Randee Cooke,

I did some Googling and the links to his "Emergency Energy Rebate" all seemed to be from August and other dates before the election. It is not clear to me that he's still pursuing this. With the huge drop in fuel prices my guess is that the plan has been overtaken by events. Do you have a source of info for how this proposal is still under consideration by the Obama Administration?

I also see from Googling that you are a fan of the Pickens Plan. I also think it is not going anywhere now because of the huge decline in oil prices. People aren't eager to switch to natural gas vehicles with gasoline so cheap.

HOWARD K FELTIMORE said at September 25, 2009 4:56 PM:


I never read so much so much bullshit in my life!!! You all have a serious need to visit a working coal power plant, not as a general visitor but as a special visitor and really learn about the "upgrades" in the coal industry in the last 30 years. Bituminous coal one of the many many leading causes of "poor air quality". Bitumious is the "coal" that one can smell when it's burning, i have a coal heater in my living room, i burn anthracite, also known as hard coal. Anthracite has the most energy and the lowest percentage of sulfur and "bad" things in it. Bituminous is soft coal, its easier and cheaper to mine out of the coal mine or strip mine and the biggest reason it's used is because of the design of all USA powerplants-all powerplants currently use the atomization method to burn the coal. First the coal is mined, sorted for slate, screened and graded according to where it's going. Then the coal is loaded onto open top hopper cars and trains haul the coal to the destination. In the case of all USA powerplants, the coal cars are dumped one at a time into a large grinder which grinds the coal down into a very fine powder form. An auger screw under the "coal pile" spins continuously to keep a stream of pulverized coal flowing to the air suction header/distributer system. The coal powder and "scrim" which is "junk" from the mines, basically all waste coal that could not be sold is mixed with the powder coal and the mixture is fed into the delivery pipes that terminate at the burner head. The amount of air that is blown in with the powder is fairly large and then the firebox has additional large blowers to further increase the oxygen in the burning region at the burner head. If anyone has ever been around for a grain silo explosion, then you know that atomized solids are very flammable!!! The powder coal is ignited and burns at 2500-3000 degrees f. The issue with poor air quality stems from the fact that the Giant grinder is not set up or able to crush anthracite to the consistancy needed. Anthracite is to hard and would damage the grinder, the delivery pipes and is very abrasive to the nozzles. The second issue is that even at 2500 F the bitumious coal powder has alot of sulfur and other disagreeable compounds. These are not exactly consumed in the fireball nor are they totally not harmless after burning either. The bulk of the big problems have and are being solved-one step at a time. Approximatly 25-30 years prior, coal plants began to be required to place "Fly-ash" seperators in the firebox and stacks, to stop the fly ash from being ejected with the exhaust. Another item that while not required has made great efforts in keeping coal plants cleaner has been the "water bombardment" method in which smoke and byproducts from burning are bypassed to a long horizontal pipe lined with high pressure water nozzles which cause the majority of the SO2(sulfur dioxide) to fall out of the smoke as a solid. Think for a minute where would we all be at with out coal in modern life-the ash and remaining cinders from the plant are still used in road construction and masonry/concrete plants as a binder. Back to my statements about anthracite-antracite is wonderful homeheating fuel, you can't even tell when my heater is burning because no smoke comes out of my chimney. As for those that disagree with coal use and use a pellet stove, im going to be reading a book and stoking my heater when your freezing to death because when the last light bulb goes out your pellet stove won't work with out electricity. I can always get or dig coal/wood. Can someone with a pellet stove allways get pellets. Pellets are man-made, somehow i don't see people "pelleting" out trees with out electricity. I know, i know your stove has a battery and your going to use the sun and voltaics to charge it-what about during a 7-10 day blizzard or being snowed in for a week? Will the pellet stove battery last that long? As for someone that might try to tell me that there is pellet stoves that run with out juice-Show me one, i invite you to show me a pellet stove that runs with out juice!!! Not in this lifetime-Ever try to burn pellets with out forced draft-does not work!!! They all just clump up and smoke real bad but they don't burn!!!! If people dispute any thing i've said, thats fine but i can prove everything i said-Take a tour of eddystone Pa Limerick Generation plant and see for your self!!!!!


Ed said at April 14, 2010 7:31 AM:

Hey Environmentalist extremists - I understand your cause that we shouldn't be so destructive. Lets take a look at facts though. One house that burns down puts out more toxins into the atmosphere than a coal burning powerlant puts out in several months. There were almost half a MILLION house fires last year (500,000). Whats the real enemy here? Spending efforts in preventing house fires will go farther than you fighting tooth and nail against coal fire powerplants. These powerplants provide you the power so you can continue to have all of your unnecessary amenities in life.

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