Burning coal at home not a trend to embrace

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A couple of years ago, I attended a farm science fair, where a dozen different vendors were extolling the benefits of corn-burning stoves. Suckers. Now, the New York Times reports that some Americans are reaching back to the nasty old age of coal to heat their homes.

Until 2006, coal usage was limited mostly to large electric generation plants. In 2007, however, home use increased by 9%, and this year promises an even larger jump. According to the Solid Fuel Association, the benefits of heating with coal include economy, better home ventilation (just think about that one for a moment) and independence from interrupted service.

I have to wonder about its economy. The chart of spot prices for coal over the last two years looks very much like the graph of oil prices. However, the Energy Information Administration's Excel-based Heating Fuel Comparison Calculator indicates that coal provides a million BTU of heat for $8.03 vs. $15.50 for natural gas, $26.32 for fuel oil and $33.09 for electricity. (Prices will vary with the market, but the relative value should be stable.) Since much of the cost of coal comes from hauling it from the mine to the consumer, the closer you are to a source mine, the better deal you can expect to get.

However, this savings comes at a high price, both to the consumer and the environment. Coal is a noisome, dirty fuel that will soil your home and your neighborhood. It requires regular attention, stoking and removing ash. The ash can become a burden, too. According to the book Garbageland, personal waste generation by New Yorkers peaked in 1940 and is now only a fraction of that amount, primarily because of fuel ash.

Burning coal also generates carbon dioxide, sulfur, nitrogen oxide, and mercury. The recent fly ash flood in Tennessee serves as a reminder of the hazards of coal waste. The increased danger of fire is something to consider, as well.

I'm all for saving money on essentials, but reverting to coal isn't a strategy I'd encourage. I remember winters when I couldn't see more than a few blocks due to coal smoke hanging in the air, wiping coal dirt from our wallpaper in the spring, and skinning my knees in the cinder alleys. Those were not the good old days.

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