Ninety-five percent of US homes are heated with fossil fuels or electricity, which is mostly generated by burning fossil fuels. How can you help reverse this trend with more eco-friendly fuels?
How to choose the right home heating fuel
If you live in the northern US, where home heating is a primary ecological concern, consider these findings by our neighbors to the north, which approximate fuel usage in northern states: The average Canadian home that heats with natural gas generates over 5 tons of carbon dioxide per year, while homes heated with oil emit 7 tons of CO2 per year. Even if you can't totally eliminate petroleum-based fuels from your home heating, you can reduce your use significantly with some of the following strategies.
Energy-saving strategies for a new home
If you're building a new home, try to choose a renewable energy source whenever possible. Start by incorporating passive solar elements into your home design. Consider active solar and geothermal for meeting your heating and electricity needs, perhaps in conjunction with a renewable space heating option such as a woodstove or pellet stove. A combination of solar, an open floor plan, and woodstove certified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can give you all the heat you need, while being carbon neutral and using no fossil fuels.Wilson, Alex, "Your Best Heating & Cooling Options" Mother Earth News (Summer 2007)
The availability of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydro depend on climate and location, but are great eco-friendly options even for those in remote locations who are "off the grid."
Dual-fuel strategies for an existing home
Totally replacing your heating system in an existing home may be impractical. In this case, two fuels may be better than one: consider augmenting your current heating system by adding a renewable-fuel option such as a woodstove, pellet stove, or corn stove. Base your choice on local fuel availability: Wood and pellet stoves make sense in forested regions, corn stoves are viable options in grain-producing areas. Using a renewable-fuel heating system to supply even part of your heating needs saves energy and money, and reduces your reliance on petroleum.
Below is a breakdown of fuel options: petroleum-based and renewable fuels, to help you decide which fuel, or combination of fuels is best for you.
Most homes in the US are heated by natural gas, propane, heating oil, or fossil-fuel-generated electricity.
Natural gas and propane
Over half of all US homes are heated with natural gas. In his article "The Rise of Renewable Energy," published by Scientific American, author Daniel Kammen calls natural gas "the least-bad fossil fuel."Green, David L.,(editor)(2007) Oil and the Future of Energy. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press: 200 While he's talking about natural gas as a replacement for coal in electric power plants, it's also true in home heating: as fossil fuels go, natural gas and propane are generally regarded as the cleanest-burning fuels. Both, however, produce significant CO2 emissions.Wilson, Alex, "Your Best Heating & Cooling Options" Mother Earth News (Summer 2007)
Although using natural gas may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short run, it's no panacea. Natural gas emits 30 percent fewer carbon emissions for each unit of energy than oil, however it still produces nitrogen oxides, which cause smog and acid rain. Although CO2 emissions are lower, natural gas (methane) traps heat in the atmosphere 58 times better than carbon dioxide. The amount of methane in the atmosphere has doubled since the beginning of the industrial age, and natural gas produces approximately 10 percent of all global warming emissions. 
Also, since natural gas has been touted as a cleaner burning fuel, the huge increases in natural gas usage have caused rising costs and concerns about supply shortages.Green, David L.,(editor)(2007) Oil and the Future of Energy. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press: 200 And while natural gas is generally cheaper than oil, there are no guarantees.
Propane, which is just liquefied natural gas, is popular in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas not serviced by the natural gas distribution system. Propane is usually cheaper than natural gas, and producing heat and hot water with propane is cheaper — and better for the environment — than using electricity.Trethewey, Richard, (1994) This Old House Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company: 141
Of the 8.1 million US households that heat with oil, 6.3 million — about 78 percent — are in the Northeast, which includes New England and the Central Atlantic States.
Skyrocketing oil prices are a primary concern to state governments in the Northeast as homeowners struggle to afford home heating fuel. The average price of home heating oil has increased 142 percent since Janauary 2000. Switching to natural gas isn't necessarily the answer either: During a severe cold snap, prices of other heating fuels (such as natural gas) may rise even more than heating oil prices.
Another reason not to rush out to switch from oil to natural gas: If you heat with oil, you can reduce your petroleum usage by using a biodiesel blend, which works in virtually any oil-fired furnace or boiler.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 43 Using B20 biodiesel — which is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel — can reduce your home heating carbon emissions by 20 percent. With modifications to your heating system, you may even be able to use B99.9 — or 99.9 percent biodiesel and only .1 percent petroleum-based diesel.  Over the long run, increasing the percentage of biodiesel in your home heating oil may be more eco-friendly than switching to natural gas.
Ask your oil company if it offers, or plans to offer, biodiesel — the more inquiries the company receives, the more likely it is to join the increasing ranks of biofuel dealers.
About 31 percent of US homes use electric heat. Electricity isn't actually a fuel, but a form of energy. Heating with conventional electric heat, sourced from your local power company, is one of the most eco-unfriendly home heating options — it's also generally at least two times more expensive than heating with other fuels. In the context of home heating, power plant-generated electricity is a "secondary energy": For every one kWh of fossil fuel-derived electricity we use to heat our homes, two kWh are lost at the power plant as waste heat.Stoyke, Godo (2007) The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers: 22 Of course, electric heat produced by a renewable energy source, such as solar, is a different story.
If your home has conventional electric heat, what can you do to decrease your energy consumption? One option: Consider switching to natural gas, especially if you live in a state or province — such as Wyoming or Alberta — that uses a lot of coal in its electricity production.
Switching from electricity to natural gas as your source of heat can:Stoyke, Godo (2007) The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers: 22
- lower your carbon emissions by 80 percent
- reduce your heating costs by 50 percent
- reduce your primary energy use by 67 percent
Another option is to look into using a heat pump or adding a more environmentally friendly woodstove, pellet stove, or corn stove, to save money and cut down on harmful emissions.
Renewable home heating fuels include solar, wood, wood pellets, corn pellets, and geothermal. Other renewable options not discussed here may also be available to some homeowners: including wind, hydro, and additional biomass fuels.
While you may not think of heat from the sun as a fuel, it is in fact energy generated by a nuclear reactor — the sun — which is a nice, safe 93 million miles from earth.Ramsey, Dan, (2007) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Solar Power for Your Home. New York: Alpha Books: 11 It's benefits: Solar energy is free, inexhaustible, non-polluting, and in the right situation it can provide both heat and hot water. It's drawbacks: Your house needs a good passive solar design and the farther north you are, the less effective it is. In northern locations, you'll need a backup system.Stoyke, Godo (2007) The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers: 39
An active solar system greatly reduces air pollution and greenhouse gases that would result from using oil, propane, or natural gas as your heating fuel. Solar is one of the best green choices for home heating.
With an active solar heating system, while the fuel is free, the system installation is not. Heating with an active solar system, however, greatly lowers your fuel bills, and eventually the added cost of the system pays for itself. Using an active solar heating system is most cost-effective in a cold climate — where it's used throughout most of the year — with ample available sunlight. Using active solar to take the place of petroleum-based heating fuels makes sense economically — and ecologically.
Wood is the oldest heating fuel: it's been providing heat for humans for hundreds of thousands of years. In the late 1800s, fossil fuels replaced wood, up until the 1973 oil embargo, when wood heating again gained favor in the US. In many parts of the world, wood has always been used as a heating fuel.Stoyke, Godo (2007) The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers: 22
The advantages of wood are that it's homegrown, it's renewable, and its availability is not affected by global political or economic factors. In many areas of the US — such as northern New England, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South — the cost of wood is lower per million Btu than any other fuel. Using wood from a sustainable source and a high-efficiency stove that attains nearly complete combustion (that means one manufactured since 1988 that's EPA-certified) allows for efficient — and eco-friendly — wood heating.Stoyke, Godo (2007) The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers: 113Trethewey, Richard, (1994) This Old House Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company: 149-151
Wood pellets for home heating are made from sawdust and ground wood chips. They're recycled waste products generated from making trees into furniture, lumber, and other products. Pellets usually cost less than electric heat or propane, and about the same as oil and natural gas. The advantages of pellets are that they're clean burning with few emissions and they're easy to store and handle. The disadvantages are they're more labor-intensive than traditional forms of heat.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 40-41
Using corn as home heating fuel was popular in the 1930s during the Depression, particularly in the Midwest. Corn can also be the least expensive renewable fuel: If grain prices are low, and heating fuel prices are high, corn pellets may cost less than half the price of wood pellets and two-thirds the price of propane. Other grains such as wheat, barley, rye, sorghum, and soybeans can also be burned as fuel, which makes sense when their prices are low. The advantage of corn pellets are that they're clean burning and provide a steady heat. One disadvantage is that storing corn and other grains can attract rodents and insects.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 40-41
Geothermal, in the context of home heating, is usually discussed in relation to heat pumps. Geothermal typically refers to stored energy which results from the ground or groundwater being heated by the sun, although the definition can be broad. The advantages of geothermal are that it's non-polluting, safe, inexhaustible, and can be used for both heating and cooling. The disadvantages are that geothermal requires electricity and an expensive heating appliance.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 44-45
Choosing the right home heating fuel helps you go green because…
- Heating your home with fossil fuels not only results in a high cost to you, it also comes at a high cost to the environment.
- US home heating systems alone pollute the air with more than a billion tons of CO2 every year, as well as about 12 percent of the nation's emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.Wilson, Alex and Morrill, John (1998) Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. Washington, DC: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy: 53
The Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed the ecological impact of the most common consumer actions and products and ranked "home heating, air conditioning, and water heating" fourth in its list of the "seven most harmful human activities" the environment.
Your choice of home heating fuel can make a big difference. For example, switching from electric to gas or oil heat would save 23 or 19 tons of CO2 per year, respectively.Wilson, Alex and Morrill, John (1998) Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. Washington, DC: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy: 3-4 Electric heat generated by hydro, solar, and wind power essentially produce no emissions, and are all renewable fuels. Geothermal, biodiesel, and passive solar are other earth-smart home heating options. Heating with wood is carbon neutral. Switching fuels or partially heating your home with a renewable fuel can drastically reduce your carbon emissions.
Related health issues
Studies published by Pediatrics, The Lancet, Epidemiology, and other medical journals have shown a high correlation between natural gas use in the home and environmentally induced illnesses including asthma and multiple chemical sensitivity. Heating with natural gas produces higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. A November 2007 study published in Pediatrics concluded that chronic exposure to indoor nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from home heating, as well as gas stoves, dryers, and barbecue grills, may be a public health concern, and that there is an association between exposure to high levels of indoor NO2 and respiratory symptoms in children with asthma. NO2 exposure in the home is also associated with wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.
Gerald Ross, MD, former president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, author of Chemical Sensitivity: Sources of Total Body Load, has found in his practice that natural gas is a pollutant that can exacerbate both classical allergy and chemical sensitivity, and that patients will have only limited success with treatment programs for these illnesses if they live in a home that uses natural gas or they reside in an area where natural gas is transported.
Therefore, individuals with asthma or chemical sensitivity are advised not to use natural gas or propane for heating or fueling other home appliances.
One concern raised in the media is that using corn and other grains for biofuels will result in food shortages.
A joint report by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published in April 2005 found that US land resources could produce a sustainable supply of biomass fuel to replace 30 percent or more of the country's present petroleum consumption. US agricultural lands are capable of producing almost 1 billion tons of biomass per year and still meet food, feed, and export demands.
Agriculture accounts for the third largest single use of land in the US. In 1997, the most recent year available for data, agricultural land totaled about 455 million acres — 349 million acres of land actively growing crops, 39 million acres of idle cropland, and 67
million acres of cropland used as pasture.
Currently, the amount of sustainably removable biomass from agricultural lands is about 194 million tons per year. Five times this amount — or about 1 billion tons — could be produced within 35 to 40 years using a combination of measures such as increasing crop yields using technological advances, adoption of no-till cultivation, and allocating more land use for the production of perennial crops.
Similar concerns have been raised concerning depletion of forests resulting from the increased use of wood-based fuels. However, the same USDA/DOE study found that the amount of forest-derived biomass that can be sustainably produced in the US is about 368 million tons per year — more than 2.5 times the current consumption.
- active solar: Employing solar collectors as well as pumps and controls that use electricity while gathering solar energy.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 263
- Btu: The amount of heat it takes to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1°F, or the amount of heat released by burning a wooden kitchen match.Wilson, Alex and Morrill, John (1998) Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. Washington, DC: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy: 67
- biodiesel: A clean-burning diesel fuel made from natural, renewable sources such as new or used vegetable oil.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 264
- geothermal: In the context of heating systems, geothermal refers to systems that pump heat either from or into the ground or outside air in order to heat or cool your home.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 267
- heat pump: A unit that heats or cools by moving heat. During the winter, a heat pump draws heat from outdoor air and circulates it through your home's air ducts. In the summer, it reverses the process and removes heat from your house and releases it outdoors. 
- kilowatt-hour (kWh): A kilowatt is a unit of electrical power equal to 1,000 watts; ten 100-watt light bulbs consume one kilowatt of electricity. One kilowatt equals 3,415 Btu. A kilowatt-hour (kWh) is one thousand watts acting during a period of 1 hour.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 269Ramsey, Dan, (2007) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Solar Power for Your Home. New York: Alpha Books: 265
- passive solar: A design and construction strategy that maintains a comfortable indoor temperature by admitting, storing, and preserving the heat from sunlight.Pahl, Greg,(2003) Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 269
- US Department of Energy - Residential Heating Oil Prices: What Consumers Should Know This online brochure demystifies home heating oil: where it comes from, how it's produced, why prices fluctuate, and how to save money on home heating oil.
- US Department of Energy - Comprehensive State Energy Profiles Find out your state's "energy profile." This site includes up-to-date detailed data, and fascinating facts, about all forms of energy by state .
- Canadian Renewable Energy Network (CanREN) - The Case for Wood Energy
- US Census Bureau News - Gas Most Popular Home Heating Fuel, Census Bureau Survey Shows
- Union of Concerned Scientists - How Natural Gas Works
- US Department of Energy - Propane Prices: What Consumers Should Know
- US Department of Energy - Residential Heating Oil Prices: What Consumers Should Know
- PR Newswire - State of the Union 2008: By the Numbers
- SeQuential - Home Heating with Biodiesel
- US Department of Energy - Active Solar Heating
- San Francisco Chronicle - Group's Surprising Beef With Meat Industry
- alive.com - Natural Gas is Unnatural
- ''Pediatrics'' - Association of Indoor Nitrogen Dioxide Exposure With Respiratory Symptoms in Children With Asthma
- US Department of Energy and US Department of Agriculture - Biomass as a Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply
- Lennox - Glossary