I'd have been inclined to think that the greatest growth in household heating in this country over the last decade would have been in the use of electricity. And I wouldn't have been that far off actually. Between 2000 and 2010, the use of electricity for home heating increased by about 24 percent, accounting for the second largest gain.
But, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, it's a renewable fuel that is the fastest growing home heating fuel in the nation, with a 34 percent increase in use during the first 10 years of the 21st century. In eight states, most of them in the northeast, the number of households using this fuel as a primary heat source more than or nearly doubled in that time. In Michigan, use of this fuel increased by 135 percent ; in Connecticut, use increased by 122 percent; New Hampshire and Massachusetts both saw a 99 percent increase in its use; Maine and Rhode Island, a 96 percent increase; Ohio, 95 percent; and Nevada, 91 percent.
What is this ever-more-in-demand fuel? Here's a hint. It's renewable, so it's not natural gas, propane, coal or fuel oil. In fact, during those 10 years, use of both fuel oil and propane for home heating declined significantly in the U.S.; oil by 21 percent and propane by 16 percent. It's not small-scale solar, or geothermal either.
The fastest growing heating fuel in America is wood. Approximately 2.4 million homeowners now claim that wood is their primary heating fuel, making firewood the nation's fifth most widely-used primary heating fuel. However, when you take both primary and secondary heating fuels into account, wood moves up in the ranks to third place, behind only gas and electricity. For each American home heated primarily with wood there are at least three that use wood as a secondary or supplemental fuel.
The greatest turnover to wood from other home heating fuels has taken place in rural areas, with 57 percent of rural households now using wood, at least in part, for their heating needs. 40 percent of suburban households and 3 percent of urban families now claim to heat, at least in part, with wood.
Wood heat now accounts for 80 percent of the residential renewable energy used in this country. Solar accounts for 15 percent of use and geothermal for 5 percent. The Census offers no explanation as to why so many people are switching to wood heat, but I have no doubt that the answer comes down, first and foremost, to the escalating cost of fossil fuels. Here in the northeast, even for households purchasing firewood or wood pellets, the savings can be considerable when compared to fuel oil, electricity, or propane. Interest in the use of sustainable, renewable energy and in energy independence, and the economic downturn are, most likely, contributing factors, as well.
According to 2010 Census and U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) data, the number of New York homes heating primarily with wood increased by 73 percent, to about 143,000, between 2000 and 2010, accounting for about 2 percent of all New York households. Factor out New York City and Long Island and the percentage increases to more than 10 percent. Of particular interest is Lewis County, where more than 25 percent of households reported heating primarily with wood. EIA information also reveals that upwards of 400,000 New York homes used cord wood or wood pellets for supplemental heating in 2009, and that the largest number of households utilizing wood as a heating fuel reported incomes of less than $20,000.
I believe that it is important to consider the fact that insurance companies often refuse homeowner insurance, or apply large surcharges on policies for homes that are heated primarily with wood. Therefore, some homeowners may report wood heat as a supplemental heating option, even though wood is their primary heating fuel.
Also, if you look closely at the definition of the term supplemental, when discussing wood heat, you may be talking about something as inefficient as the use of firewood in a conventional fireplace; excellent for ambiance, but offering little or no savings. In fact, burning cordwood in a conventional fireplace, unless you cut your own or have a source for free firewood, may result in considerable additional expense.
Supplemental use of wood may also be the part-time use of a woodstove to heat a small area of the house, such as a basement or family room. In this situation, the savings, or lack of savings, can vary greatly, depending on the efficiency of the stove and the ability of the homeowner to lower the overall temperature in other living areas.
Efficiency should be a key factor when considering wood heat (or the purchase of any other energy consuming appliance, for that matter). Advanced, better-quality cordwood and wood pellet stoves, furnaces, and boilers can cut heating expenses considerably when replacing older appliances that rely on fossil fuels, and reduce fuel requirements substantially when compared to less efficient cordwood and wood pellet burning appliances. In fact, the payback time on new, highly efficient wood burning appliances may be just a few years. And improved design and technological advances in these appliances often result in a marked reduction of chimney smoke and related pollution.
One last thought: When you spend your hard-earned dollars on oil, propane or electricity, you support, principally, some purely profit-minded, often multi-national, corporation. When you buy firewood, you're making an investment in your community. You're supporting a neighbor and an energy resource that is both local and sustainable.
To find out more about safely heating with wood or making other choices that can reduce energy use in your home, business or community, save you money, and have a positive impact on the environment, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.