In my local paper the other day there was a story about a guy that burns coal for heating his home in NH. It was an interesting story for two reasons: 1) because not many people burn coal in New England and 2) because he was told (or was under the impression) that he was burning “clean coal”.
The implication was that his coal stove was not as polluting as the next guy’s. More importantly, the price of coal today is low enough that he was saving money by burning coal over his oil backup furnace.
I’d like to look at both parts of this concept: coal is cheap, and coal is “clean” (or “cleaner” than in the past).
The first part maybe true today — coal costs the homeowner less … but what are the real costs and for how long will the retail price remain low? A few months? A few years?
As with any fossil fuel, coal isn’t replaceable … it is a finite resource which takes more and more energy (and lives) to get it out of the ground each year. It is only a matter of time before the true costs of harvesting and burning coal are added to the actual price that we pay.
The second part of the statement, that this is a “clean coal” (antracite) is a tough one to justify.
When burned, all forms of coal and all known methods of cleaning still result in the highest carbon dioxide emissions per heat unit (BTU) than any other fuel, making our atmosphere more and more hazardous for our own health and the health of the next generations.
I did some reading on “clean coal” and my understanding is that coal (and most fossil fuels) can be burned in a “cleaner” manner than traditional methods, which reduces the harmful emissions a bit. The technology for that doesn’t come from the coal but from the methods of burning it, scrubbing it, or capturing the fumes for further treatment.
So using an old coal stove to burn any type of coal (as the guy in the article was doing), is still one of the worst pollutants that we know about. Also coal has to be imported to New England, which means there will be added shipping costs, and the coal industry does not employ many local people.
In New England we are sustainably growing trees that can be used to heat our homes. Together with gasification burning (see “Renewable Wood Heating“), which can be 95% efficient, this solution provides a carbon neutral heating alternative. On top of that, we can also keep the harvesting and pellet production right here in New England.
As long as we are replacing all the trees we use for heat, the result is carbon neutral. The gasification boilers are a bit more expensive than traditional wood stoves or outdoor wood boilers, but the increase in efficiency will usually pay off in less than 10 years.
With new construction you have the advantage of siting the building to let lots of winter sun through south facing windows provide as much passive solar heat as you can; and you can “super” insulate it (See “Prepping for Insulation“) to lower the heat requirements considerbly. Those items alone will pay off in 3 or 4 years. At that point you may be able to heat your home with solar alone, geothermal, or a solar/wood combination that fits our environment much more sustainably here in NH.