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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Winter Energy Planning Time

September's cool winds (like that 106-degree breeze they had yesterday in Dallas) get us to thinking about heating the home again. Here in the northeastern U.S., that means another winter of fretting about home heating oil prices. A quick check with my local supplier revealed that a 575-gallon fill up will cost me $2,012.45 at $3.499 a gallon. Assuming that price holds, and I fill up twice this winter like usual, I'm facing a $4,000 - $5,000 heating bill for winter 2011. Gulp.

Well, what are my alternatives? Tune up the old boiler for another year, and turn down the thermostat? Upgrade to a new oil boiler, hoping for higher efficiency? Try to take advantage of the glut of natural gas in the North American marketplace (currently $0.99 per hundred cubic feet, or CCF, in State College) by purchasing a new natural gas boiler? Or back up my Go Wood mission with conviction, and purchase a wood-fueled boiler?  Forget the boiler, just purchase a two or three pellet stoves to go with my wood stove insert downstairs? While I'm spending money, why not go solar-thermal? Or small-scale nuclear? Or....

Too many choices for my feeble brain to process quickly...which is why I still have the old oil boiler chugging away, burning money faster than my teenage girls in a shoe store.

It's easy to crunch through energy calculations on the macro level, but when it gets to your own home, it gets a lot tougher. Well, I'm going to tackle it with numbers this year, and I'll share the calculations with your here on Go Wood. Hopefully, I'll reach a conclusion before April and you'll be able to check my logic and calculations against your own situation, if you have an interest.

Before I get going, though, I'm going to start out with a review of what my colleague Dr. Dennis Buffington has termed "The Energy Pyramid." In an excellent article on the Energy Pyramid, Dr. Buffington explains that you have to start building the pyramid of a solid decision on a firm foundation, which he explains is Energy Conservation:


"Energy Conservation is largely based on behavioral practices to use energy in a more efficient manner.  Such behavioral practices include turning off lights when not needed, setting thermostats to lower settings in the winter and higher settings in the summer, keeping engines and machinery properly maintained for efficient operation, cleaning the blades of ventilation fans on a frequent basis to remove accumulated dust, and replacing air filters on HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.  Generally energy conservation behavioral changes can be made for little or no expense.  But it is essential to have the cooperation of all people involved with the organization or enterprise for energy conservation to be successful."
Aye, there's the rub, me friend.  "...cooperation of all people involved..." Getting my wife and daughters to leave the thermostat alone when the tip of their nose is cold is a challenge requiring nerves of steel and many nights on the couch. But OK, we're going to assume you're going to be diligent trying to be more efficient in your use of heating energy this winter. Good luck with that.

The next step up the pyramid is Energy Efficiency. This means that the devices you employ to turn fuel into heat result in the best results possible, and that a significant amount of your heat is not lost up the flue in waste heat. I know that my boiler was rated at 82% efficient ten years ago, but based on the fumes we had in the boiler room last winter, I think we're running closer to 22% now. So, I need to get a more efficient boiler! But, as Dr. Buffington warns:
"It is essential that increasing energy efficiency yields financial savings as well.  Before any purchases are made, one needs to evaluate whether the increased cost for the purchase is cost-effective over the life of the equipment."
I've begun getting bids in for a couple of different alternatives, and I'm already seeing that these calculations can get pretty tricky...you'll see what I mean in upcoming posts.

The third level of the pyramid, Energy Demand, involves shifting your usage to periods of lower demand in order to take advantage of lower rates. Typically, this is applied for electricity usage, and folks using electric coil or ceramic heaters might show some savings by turning down or shutting off their heaters during peak hours and re-heating during the night and mid-afternoon. But it also could apply to folks who purchase heating oil or propane. Since it comes in bulk, you can time your purchases, or opt for a locked-in price if your provider offers that kind of program. My record as a gambler defies the odds of probability, in the sense that every bet I've ever made has been a loser...so I'll meekly just go along with whatever the market price is the day I run out.

And then, finally, we get to the pinnacle, the crowning glory of our energy mission...Renewable Energy! Tuh duh! Dr. Buffington says...
"Renewable Energy is the peak of the pyramid and thus should be the last part of the pyramid to be built.  Renewable energy technologies should be installed only after measures for energy conservation, energy efficiency, and demand management have been fully implemented.  A study has shown that $1 spent on these three components can yield a savings of $3 when renewable energy technologies are installed.  Think about it!  Why install solar pv panels for an enterprise that is not already using energy in an efficient manner?  If the system is first modified to use energy in a more efficient manner, then fewer solar panels will be needed."
Well, that makes sense. Invest in the desired energy source after fully optimizing the system you're going to be heating. I jumped the gun a little when I bought my firewood insert three years ago, but that purchase was made to satisfy some primal urge I thought I had. I seem to have lost a little of that urge when my oldest son, and primary wood-splitter, Charlie, deserted his old dad for the U.S. Army, leaving the primary wood splitting, stacking, and hauling upstairs to...me. Well, at least firewood is relatively cheap, and my body was depreciated decades ago, so that decision will probably still stand up to economic and emotional scrutiny.

Taken as a whole, the Energy Pyramid does make sense. But proper implementation is detailed and project-specific, and most of us just give up and fall prey to the best heating salesman we meet at the home show. It is critical to understand, though, that our hope for sustainable utilization of renewable energy sources in a proportion of our homes and businesses requires that we get this calculus right.

More as I get all the bids lined up...

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