WASHINGTON – Fuel oil and natural gas prices are expected to rise sharply this winter, but that is of little concern to Maryland residents who can reach for a shovelful of corn to heat their homes.
More than 38,000 Maryland households 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.
That number is down slightly from 2000, and alternative fuels are not about to knock off standard fuels any time soon. Gas was used to heat half of all occupied Maryland homes last year and electricity heated about one-third of the state’s homes. Fuel oil and kerosene were used in 14.5 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 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. The 28 households in the Takoma Park 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 4,931 Maryland homes that used alternative sources of fuel last winter, according to Census estimates. The bureau’s survey also said that 27,307 Maryland homes burned wood for heat, 6,240 used coal or coke and 113 used solar energy. About 3,826 homes reported using no heating fuel at all.
All those homeowners have one big advantage with their fuel of choice — 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 had for $117 to $142 in the Mid-Atlantic region, said Denise McDonald, member services associate at the Pellet Fuels Institute. Miller said wood pellets are currently the most popular type of alternative heating fuel in the state.
But coal sells for even less, said Richard Schwinabart, owner of D & L Coal Co. in Bloomington. 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, said that the wood they bring down 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.
“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, which have declined by 16 percent between 2000 and 2003, 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. And convenience is another factor that could be keeping more Marylanders 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 heating your home.”
-30- CNS 11-24-04