More on Heating Fuels

More on Heating Fuels

I appreciated reading your fairly comprehensive article on environmental impacts of various heating fuel options (“Heating Fuel Choices: Weighing the Alternatives”, EBN,

Vol. 2, No. 6). You uncovered several of the complexities inherent to evaluating the costs and benefits of fuel options as determined by technology, geographic region and efficiency of end-use. Your figure on Lifecycle Environmental Impacts of Heating Fuels was especially informative. I also laud you in your effort of transforming technical data on pollutant emissions into comprehensible tables and comments that provide the reader with the tools to form their own decisions on which fuels potentially have the least impact for their particular design and location.

There are two points that I feel deserve more elaboration. The first point, the need for a weighting system for individual pollutants as mentioned in the article, is well taken, but assumes that there is not yet any indication of a pollutant “weighting” system in this country. Information found in a source you cited,

America’s Energy Choices, as well as indications from states such as Massachusetts, Nevada, California and Oregon, provide indicators on air pollutants that have comparatively different impacts on society from an environmental and human health perspective. These “indicators” are provided in costs to society per pound of pollutant. Values for a national average impact of air emissions, as provided by

America’s Energy Choices, follow (in $1990/pound of pollutant):

NOx - $3.40; SOx - $.78; CO2 - $.012; CH4 - $.12; CO - $.45; TSP(PM) - $2.09; and VOCs - $2.77.

While valuations of the costs of pollution vary from source to source, and from region to region, they can be considered to be indicative of the relative impact of each pollutant emitted by various fuels. As was stated in your article, this can be instrumental in comparing the true costs and benefits of our home fuel options.

The second point, and probably more fundamental in the long term to making the “right” choices for sustainability, is that of considering the intrinsic value of nature and natural resources. Your article, based on the most current information (and, therefore, biased at this time towards air emission impacts), concludes by saying that natural gas (after conservation and solar, of course) is the “best choice from an environmental standpoint.” Wood as a home heating source, without argument more polluting than gas and many electric heating options, comes out as one of the least environmentally agreeable options. This makes perfectly fine sense in regards to environmental and human health impacts of air emissions. However, if we were able to adequately evaluate the scarcity of energy resource options, the overall evaluation of the total relative impacts of each resource would be quite different. Renewable options would inherently gain a large advantage in sustainability discussions over those resources that are, for all intents and purposes in our lifetimes, finite on this planet.

This is not to fault your article at all, for resource scarcity issues have been well-represented in previous EBN articles. I want merely to point out an issue that should be kept prominent in any effort to estimate comparative impacts of our energy and resource use options. Existing information on externalities is negligible and marginally useful within our current economic system. More concisely stated by Herman Daly of the World Bank, “…the inability of the price system to deal with absolute scarcity [of natural resources] is probably another reason for orthodox economics having wished it out of existence.” There is a much greater need to derive a comprehensive paradigm based on the natural ebbs and flows of this planet’s energies, and the sinks and sources of her waste. I only hope that any partial information we may gain in the process does not distract us from our ultimate goal of minimizing all of our negative impacts on the health and longevity of the global ecosystem.

Gary Swindler, Director of Research

Christeller Cargill, Prescott, AZ

Published January 1, 1994

(1994, January 1). More on Heating Fuels. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/editorial/more-heating-fuels

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