Feature Article

Heating Fuel Choices: Weighing the Alternatives

Energy use is arguably the most significant environmental impact of buildings. Residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. use about 29 quads (quadrillion Btus) of energy each year, 35% of total energy consumption. That energy used for space heating and cooling in residential buildings (just over 7 quads per year) produces 420 million tons of carbon dioxide per year and 8.9 million tons of atmospheric pollutants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How do our various heating fuels (gas, oil, wood, electricity, etc.) compare in terms of environmental impact? Which fuels are least damaging and why? Which should we specify for our next project? While these questions sound pretty straightforward, they are not. Very often we don’t even have good ways to compare one fuel to another relative to environmental impact. And when comparisons are made, they are usually limited to only one or two parts of the total picture.

To complicate matters, we’re being bombarded with claims and counter-claims about which fuels are better in terms of environmental impact. Utility companies and utility industry associations have come out with studies showing that electricity is less polluting than direct burning of fossil fuels in buildings. The American Gas Association has published a study showing that gas is better for the environment than electricity. The oil industry makes similar claims. And the wood heating industry promotes wood energy as an environmental choice (emphasizing the renewable nature of the resource).

This article takes a look at the many issues relating to environmental impacts of heating fuels and seeks to provide a framework for responsible decision-making. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but after wading through all the reports and studies we could find, we have been able to draw some conclusions and provide some positive recommendations.

Published November 1, 1993

(1993, November 1). Heating Fuel Choices: Weighing the Alternatives. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/heating-fuel-choices-weighing-alternatives