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"Old-world" Energy in Vogue

by Emily Heffter
Seattle Times - November 27, 2005

In coming years, new technology might make home heating cheaper. But for now, to the dismay of environmentalists, old technology is.

Fossil fuels are one way consumers, government agencies and energy companies are looking to the past for cheaper ways to heat. It's not just nostalgia. Producers say they can't make enough renewable energy -- wind and solar power, for example -- to meet demand.

As costs escalate for other home-heating fuels, utilities are buying more coal. One agency is pursuing a coal-to-fuel plant in Southwest Washington.

Soaring heating bills, especially for oil and natural gas, are driving even urban homeowners to reconsider their wood-burning fireplaces as sources of heat.

Gretchen Smyth's Queen Anne condo is equipped with baseboard heat she rarely uses. Electric heat, she says, is a luxury she can't afford. Instead, Smyth buys a $400 cord of wood once a year and has it delivered and stacked in her carport beside her hybrid car. It keeps her warm from September until May, she said.

"It smells good, and it sounds good, and it looks good -- it's a nice package," Smyth said. "I'm addicted."

The cost of heating oil and natural gas in the West has more than doubled since 1990. Electricity has gone up about half in 15 years. Other parts of the U.S. are seeing more dramatic spikes.

The rise has prompted state and local governments to find new ways to produce energy. Western governors, including Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, attended a conference last month in Montana about turning coal into natural gas.

"It's kind of old-world technology," said Bruce Measure, a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Germany used it in World War II. Energy Northwest's planned $1 billion gasification plant would convert coal to a fuel similar to natural gas, producing fuel that could sell for half of what natural gas costs now, company spokesman Brad Peck said.

"If you say coal, some people are predisposed, and they can't get a traditional coal plant out of their minds," Peck said. "Pure and simple, this is not a coal plant. We are not burning coal."

But the plant would produce more carbon dioxide than natural-gas-powered plants, so many environmentalists oppose it.

"[A plant] might be a good alternative in, say, Pennsylvania or New Jersey or someplace where it would be replacing a dirty plant that is putting out massive amounts of health-impacting pollutants in addition to all the carbon dioxide," said Marc Krasnowsky, spokesman for the NW Energy Coalition. "When you come to the Northwest, that's not what it's replacing.

"We're basically talking about meeting new loads, new demands, which can be met quite successfully and quite fully with clean energy sources."

New technology is being developed that could capture carbon dioxide to keep it from harming the environment, but that isn't likely to be in place in 2012, when the plant is to open.

Besides the emissions, mining and transporting the coal carries environmental costs.

The Northern Plains Resource Council -- an environmental group in Billings, Mont. -- opposes similar plants proposed for Montana, where coal is mined.

"Rather than look to the energy of the past, Montana can chart a new course," the group wrote on its Web site.

Individual consumers are moving toward wood heat in their homes, at least from the stories woodstove dealers tell.

Customers at Sutter Home and Hearth in Woodinville and Ballard are choosing wood-burning stoves over natural gas, owner Mike Duval said.

Duval used current energy rates to calculate the costs of different types of heat. He says his numbers indicate that, even with increases this season, natural gas is still the cheapest choice: about $14 for 1 million BTUs. Wood costs about $16 for the same amount of heat, he said.

Bob Weiss, who has sold firewood in the Seattle area since 1983, says he's sold about 25 percent more this year than last and believes that's driven by energy prices. "People are calling, saying that, 'With the price of fuel going up, we're going to burn wood,' " Weiss said.

The chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee introduced legislation recently to make it cheaper to cut firewood in national forests. The government charges $10 to $15 a cord.

The environmental costs of wood heating concern some.

"Heating with wood is the dirtiest form of heating," said Amy Fowler, a Puget Sound Clean Air Agency air-resource specialist.

Even with a newer, cleaner-burning woodstove, the typical wood-burning home will emit about 150 pounds of fine-particle pollution in a year, Fowler said. A home that burns wood in an older fireplace or stove will emit 225 pounds of fine-particle pollution, she said.

The same home using natural gas emits 3 ounces a year.

"We have this vision of heating with wood as being romantic," Fowler said. "There's nothing romantic about a neighborhood of densely populated homes being filled with wood smoke. There's nothing romantic about cancer. There's nothing romantic about a child having an asthma attack."

Emily Heffter, Staff Reporter
"Old-world" Energy in Vogue
Seattle Times, November 27, 2005

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