By SHAWN DELL JOYCE
What is the greenest way to heat? For most of us, it is sunlight, but for others, it may be wood or even fryer oil! With renewable energy, you pay for 20 years' worth of heat (or more) upfront, but yearly operating costs are minimal, and fuel costs do not fluctuate wildly, as fuel oil, coal and natural gas costs do.
Geothermal is the greenest of them all if you are heating and cooling a large building, such as a school, hospital or even a larger home. Geothermal systems tap the earth's year-round temperature of 55 degrees and either warm it up or cool it down to room temperature. This system allows each room to have its own climate control, which makes it more comfortable for the users. Another benefit is that it provides hot water, and it also can be coupled with radiant heating in your floors.
It is also the most expensive, costing $3,000 more per ton of air than a conventional heat pump; and it costs $7,000 or more for a residential installation. But if you factor the added cost into a long-term mortgage, you can minimize it to as little as $40 per month, which would be the total cost of heating or cooling your house. If you plan on living in the same house for more than 10 years, this system is cost-effective and still will be warming your children and grandchildren for the same initial investment.
Equally green for smaller buildings is solar thermal power. This involves using solar collectors to warm air (or water) and circulate it through your house. A friend who installs solar hot water systems pointed out to me that we already are paying for the cost of solar hot water systems, given recent energy cost hikes. It makes sense to get one. Solar hot water is the bargain of the new millennium, especially if you are heating a pool or have radiant heat in your floors.
Solar thermal systems usually have the shortest payback period and are often the first step in adopting renewable energy recommended for homeowners. Most solar thermal systems cost about $7,000, but many states have incentives and pay for up to half the installation cost, thus cutting the payback period. The savings on your home heating bills usually more than offset the cost of a loan for solar thermal. There are some simple solar heaters you can build yourself for a few hundred dollars that work just fine for heating garages, small barns and other outbuildings.
If you live in a wooded area, as I do, a high-efficiency wood stove may be the greenest choice for you. Wood stoves are not considered high-tech, but recent advances have improved the efficiency of burning wood dramatically. Traditional open masonry fireplaces aren't effective or efficient heating devices. They draw in as much as 300 cubic feet per minute of heated room air for combustion and then send it straight up the chimney. That is the same as having a 4-foot hole in your wall that is sucking your heat out. Invest $2,000 in a high-efficiency wood stove, and seal it well to reduce air leaks.
Other high-efficiency stoves on the market burn corn kernels or wood pellets. A farmer friend of mine is working to create a new type of pellet made from crop residues, such as dried cornstalks and old hay. This type of pellet would be greener than corn, given corn's high fossil fuel inputs, and locally produced. Any type of pellet stove can heat equivalently to a wood stove, and all stoves are cost-effective now with the high cost of home heating. What is crucial here is where your feedstock is coming from. To burn corn for heat while people starve around the world is not only unsustainable but also immoral.
Oil burners are relatively efficient when compared with other forms of heating, but they add to climate change and are subject to fluctuating oil prices. One way to minimize these side effects is to join a biodiesel cooperative. Members of the Hudson Valley Biodiesel Cooperative mix 35 percent homemade biodiesel with regular home heating oil. A benefit of a biodiesel co-op is that you also can fuel your diesel car. Members get biodiesel for about $2 per gallon, which covers the cost of materials but not the volunteer hours spent collecting used vegetable oil and processing it.
The most obvious green heat for your home is efficiency. Most of us think our homes are energy-efficient, but few really are. Invest in a home energy audit, and take the auditor's advice. It may be that a few hundred dollars' worth of insulation and caulk can save you several thousand in energy costs.
Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning sustainable activist and director of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at Shawn@ShawnDellJoyce.com.