A Tale of Two Cities

Matt Shudtz

Jan. 5, 2009

Last week, the New York Times ran two stories that present a fascinating dichotomy in people’s response to rising home-heating costs.

 

On Friday, Elisabeth Rosenthal reported from the central German town of Darmstadt about “passive houses” that employ high-tech designs to provide warm air and hot water using incredibly small amounts of energy – as little as might be used to power a hair dryer.

 

Rosenthal explains the design briefly:

Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

The next day, Rosenthal’s colleagues, Tom Zeller, Jr. and Stefan Milkowski, reported on an entirely different trend that is developing here in America. Homeowners are rediscovering the age-old tradition of burning coal in home furnaces and boilers. After hitting its historical low in 2006, residential coal use increased 9 percent in 2007 and over 10 percent in the first 8 months of 2008.

 

Simply put, coal is cheap. According to the Times, one ton of high grade coal might cost as little as $120. To get equivalent heat from heating oil might cost $380, while natural gas could run up to $480.

 

But coal is also dirty. Lacking pollution controls, home installations emit carbon dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and every other pollutant found in the coal. EPA has put restrictions on wood stoves and fireplace inserts to limit particulate matter emissions, but there are no such regulations governing residential coal burning.

As Zeller and Milkiwski point out,

In some localities where residential coal burning is becoming a factor, that might be changing. In Fairbanks Alaska, air quality experts suspect the increase in coal burning — along with increased wood burning — is contributing to concentrations of fine particles well above federal limits. “We see it as a real health hazard to Fairbanks,” said Jim Conner, the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s air quality specialist.

A little more growth in the residential coal market will likely result in regulation to protect against exactly such problems.  

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