Coal Still King for Some as Upper Valley Homeowners Praise Oil Alternative
When Hunter Ulf bought his home in North Pomfret 21 years ago, it came with a cast iron cook stove and about two tons of coal. While not intending to heat with coal in the long term, he decided to use what was available, learning the fine points of controlling the stove’s temperature from a cookbook used by his wife’s grandmother. He now burns about two-and-a-half tons of coal each winter and supplements with oil heat. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hunter Ulf loads the fire box with half a bucket of coal in the morning and it burns all day. He fills it with the other half at night and it burns through until morning. (Valley News - James M.Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hunter Ulf began to use his Queen Atlantic coal cook stove again about five years ago when heating oil prices started to rise. In addition to heat, he has used the oven and the range for cooking. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Coal for Christmas? Yes, please, say a small number of Upper Valley residents, who burn the mineral for home heat, and not just at holiday time.
This isn’t your grandfather’s bituminous coal, however, the type that once blackened American skies, cities and citizens. This is anthracite coal, which its proponents tout as a cleaner, cheaper and more powerful alternative in these times of high oil prices. Getting that message out, however, means weathering a plethora of immediate and negative reactions. And not everyone in convinced.
“When I say I burn coal at home, I usually get this baffled look of horror on people’s faces,’’ said Hunter Ulf, a 54-year old Pomfret resident and Hanover architect who incorporates green design in his projects. “They associate it with the power plants in the Midwest that are burning bituminous, smoking coal.
“I have to explain this is a cleaner version, but it’s hard to get people to believe that, because there’s such a stigma,” Ulf said. “I had the same feeling going into it, actually. I didn’t want to be creating my own personal acid rain cloud above my house.’’
Ulf climbed on the coal bandwagon almost by accident. He and his wife bought a 2,000-square-foot house built in the early 19th century and found it came with a coal-fired cookstove in the kitchen.
The couple’s first thought was to get rid of the appliance, which was only about 10 years old but copied a design manufactured for more than a century. There were a couple tons of anthracite coal in a bin at the house, however, and Ulf decided to burn it up to get rid of it.
“Once we figured out how to regulate (the stove), we fell in love with it,’’ said Ulf, who had his home renovated 15 years ago, which improved its energy efficiency. “It throws out an amazing amount of heat and the anthracite burns very clean and very consistently all day long. I throw in a bucket of coal in the morning and another at night. It’s so much easier than using wood. You don’t have to cut it, split it or drag it around.’’
Ulf said burning coal provides roughly 80 percent of his family’s home heat. An oil-fired boiler in the basement provides hot water and serves as a backup to the coal stove. Each year the family buys two pallets, each with sixty 40-pound bags of washed coal nuggets. The pallets weigh a combined 2.5 tons and cost less than $800 total.
“I don’t mind the little bit of extra work because I never have to clean my chimney,’’ Ulf said, referring to the need to transport the coal to his house from West Lebanon, load the stove and take ash to the landfill. “We’re paying less than half of what we were paying to heat with oil several years ago.’’
Curt Jacques and his wife, Sharon, own West Lebanon Feed & Supply, one of a limited number of coal vendors in the Upper Valley. Jacques said his store sells between 50 and 60 tons per year and the cost this week was $327 per ton.
Other vendors include Marro Home Center in Claremont and Light My Fire Stoves and Grills in Canaan.
Heating oil in the Upper Valley is about $3.80 per gallon these days, depending on the dealer, and propane is about a dollar less for the same amount. Home Depot in West Lebanon is selling wood pellets for $209 per ton.
Buyers seeking the same energy output in British Thermal Units (BTUs) to price ratio from other fuels would need.
Based on energy output, heating oil would need to sell for roughly $1.60 per gallon, propane for $1.04 per gallon and wood pellets for $185 per ton to match the price of coal, according to a U.S. Department of Energy online fuel cost conversation chart.
Robert Anderson, a retired civil engineer who lives in Hill, N.H., about 20 miles west of Grafton, buys two pallets of coal per winter from Jacques’ store, transporting it home in an antique army truck. At 70, he no longer wants to cut, split and burn wood culled from his 32-acre spread, and did some cost calculations before switching back to coal, which he’d used for a stretch more than a decade ago.
“I save over $1,000 per year over using oil,’’ said Anderson, whose 1,500-square-foot house features a cathedral ceiling and encompasses 26,000 cubic feet. “Back in the old days, my kids and I would cut and use 10 cords of firewood a year.’’
Corn farmer and residential landlord Bret Ryan of Lyme said he saves even more because he deals in bulk. He receives “distributor pricing’’ from a Pennsylvania company that ships him bagged anthracite by the tractor trailer load — about 22 tons per trailer. Ryan owns and manages 15 rental units in Lyme and Norwich, and although he used to burn corn to heat them, he recently switched over to coal boilers.
“I pay about 30 percent of the cost of fuel oil but I buy directly from the mine,’’ Ryan said. “Everybody says it’s dirty and hard to deal with, and it’s just not. Everybody talked me out of (using anthracite) before, and it turns out they were wrong.’’
Ryan said he has workers unload the coal with a forklift and onto a flatbed truck that stops at his rental properties, where the bags are stacked. He said he’s in the process of constructing detached boiler houses for each property.
The boilers and outbuildings “aren’t cheap but the payback is so dramatic when you burn this volume of fuel,’’ Ryan said. “I also got into it because i think (the nation’s) fuel situation is a little precarious and this way I control my own supply. They can sink an oil tanker somewhere and I’ve still got my coal.’’
Jack Stauffenberg is a superintendent at Blashack Coal in Mahanoy City, Pa., which stocks West Lebanon Feed & Supply with anthracite. Stauffenberg said demand for the product has been so strong that his company had to double in size during the last year and opened an additional $25 million plant. He said a new generation of anthracite-burning stoves and boilers developed and sold in the last dozen years has spurred much of the demand. Price ranges from about $2,000 to $4,000 for a home-use unit and designers have worked to make them more attractive and easier to use.
“It seems like every month it’s getting more,’’ Stauffenberg said of the anthracite demand. “We have a dealer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, now, and in areas where burning wood has been very prevalent, this is a clean-burning alternative.’’
Stauffenberg noted that his company cannot mine on virgin land, but must dig farther down in abandoned mines and that “every acre we work on must be restored to current conditions. We dig down deeper and then fill in not only what we dug, but what someone else dug 100 years ago. Then we put on topsoil and revegetate it.’’
A statement put out by Blashack on a dealer’s website reads: “While anthracite is a fossil fuel, it is an extremely clean-burning fuel and should not be confused with the lower grades of coal used in the generation of electricity. Anthracite is so clean burning it is a smokeless fuel and can be used in areas where burning wood is prohibited due to air pollution.’’
Anderson agrees. “The small amounts of pollutants I put into the air aren’t significant,’’ he said. “I live 40 miles north of the Bow (N.H.) power plant and even with the scrubbers they installed, they put far more pollutants into the air than I ever will.’’
Said Ryan: “When I was looking into coal, I found the carbon footprint of electricity was a lot higher.’’
Scott Nichols, a Lyme businessman who imports and distributes wood pellet boilers, isn’t on fully on board with those arguments.
Coal “does burn cleanly and there’s a lot of BTUs per pound, but it’s still pretty corrosive stuff and it can eat up chimneys and connector pipes,’’ he said. “There’s a niche for (coal) but I don’t think it offers enough advantage over wood, especially for people who cut their own.’’
State Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, is vice chairwoman of the House’s Natural Resources and Energy Committee. She’s worked to boost the development and use of renewable energy and is a proponent of increasing efficiency through home weatherization.
She wrote in an email that she’s against burning oil, propane and coal, but views burning wood differently because “if it’s harvested sustainably and burned efficiently in an insulated structure (important ifs), it does not contribute to climate change and provides local jobs at an affordable price.’’
Cheney cited data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, writing that “The four forms of coal are the worst emitters of greenhouse gases, with anthracite coal the leading offender at 227 pounds of (carbon dioxide) emitted per million BTUs of energy. Heating oil follows at #5 (161 pounds), then gasoline, propane, and natural gas (the best, at 117 pounds).’’
Added Cheney: “Whether or not you can see ‘smoke’ is no indicator of carbon dioxide emissions or relative polluting. It often has to do with contrasting outdoor temperatures. … I would say that switching to coal over oil is a bad choice if you’re concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and resulting climate change.’’
Regardless of one’s view on anthracite’s environmental impact, it doesn’t appear that Upper Valley demand is particularly significant or climbing. Jacques notes that West Lebanon Feed & Supply’s sales numbers have remained steady in recent years and Mike Kundrath, an energy policy analyst with the state of Vermont who tracks the use of fuels, said he doesn’t do so with coal because the numbers are so low. He said U.S. Census data shows 1,500 of roughly 250,000 Vermont households burned coal in 1990, but that only 435 did so in 2008.
Kundrath said about 100,000 state households use oil or kerosene, followed to a lesser extent by propane. Jackie Carr, a specialist in Vermont’s Environmental Assistance Office, said no permit is required to burn anthracite and Duane Egner, an inspector with the Lebanon Fire Department, said burning coal is approved as long as homeowners use and install devices that meet national standards.
Ulf doesn’t see his family changing its heating source anytime soon.
“People come over and they see our stove and they say ‘This is great, I love the heat this generates’ ’’ he said. “Then I show them the coal burning inside and they can’t believe it. I sense that it turns people off a bit, but I like having something you can walk up to and feel really warm.’’
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3227.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Wednesday, Dec. 12 edition of the Valley News:
West Lebanon Feed and Supply in West Lebanon, Marro Home Center in Claremont and Light My Fire Stoves and Grills in Canaan are among the Upper Valley vendors who sell anthracite coal for home heating use. A story in Saturday's edition understated the number of outlets for coal in the Upper Valley.