Heating the Home with Renewable Resources

In the United States, energy use accounts for 82 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Fracking for shale gas brings with it a host of environmental concerns (shale gas is expected to comprise 50 percent of all natural gas produced in the U.S. by 2035, by the way), while our continued reliance on coal and oil are killing the planet (if you want to ruin your day, check out this ever-timely article by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone). But there are renewable resources we could be tapping into in order to heat our homes this winter.

To get Better Farm off its fuel-oil furnace, we're now sporting a wood stove (utilizing standing-dead trees on the property and logs from a woodlot three miles away) and pellet stove. We of course realize these options aren't available to everyone. So depending on where you live and what's available to you, consider looking into one of these options for producing heat in your home this year.

Image from Canadian Geothermal.
Geothermal solutions are prized for their efficiency. These all-in-one 'forced-air' or 'water-to-air' systems can provide comfort to your home more efficiently than any other type of ordinary system. Put simply, geothermal is a method for heating and cooling a structure using the constant ground temperature. In reality the Earth is the world’s largest solar collector and at depths of roughly 5 feet below grade the Earth has stored enough energy to maintain about a 50 degree temperature ( in our area of Pennsylvania) year round. Geothermal heating and cooling utilizes a ‘ground source’ heat pump to either extract heat from the ground during the winter or reject heat into the ground during the summer. While the geothermal setup will pull additional electric, a solar kit can change all that. (Western Pennsylvania Geothermal Heating and Cooling, Inc.)

Solar-Powered Heat Pump
Image from Accent Comfort Services.
Modern ductless, mini-split air source heat pumps (ASHPs) run 2-3x as efficiently as traditional 'resistive' electric heat, making the cost to run the units equivalent to buying oil at $1.68/gallon.
Simultaneously, they provide air conditioning using half the energy as traditional window or central air conditioning systems. Best yet—by installing a solar electric array to power the electric consumption of the heat pumps, you effectively have a solar space-heating system. Your solar array will generate credits in the summertime (when it is sunniest) which allow you to run the heat pumps in the wintertime (when it is coldest). Your system will effortlessly generate all the 'fuel' it ever needs from clean, abundant sunshine! (From ReVision Energy)

Pellet Stoves
The new pellet stove coming soon to Better Farm's library.
For those who like wood stoves but don't love handling firewood and tending the fire, pellet stoves are great options and utilize totally renewable resources. Pellets for these stoves are made from  compressed wood byproducts and other biomass. The appliances vary from designs that are lit manually, with heat output controlled directly by the homeowner using a dial or buttons, to those units that ignite electrically, with pellet supply and heat output controlled automatically by a wall-mounted thermostat. Wood pellets produce almost no net climate-changing carbon dioxide if they are used as fuel — although some fossil fuels typically are used in the manufacture and transportation of pellets. The technology for modern residential pellet heating systems was invented back in 1983. This technology is now reliable, mature, and effective. The main question left to answer is whether the pellet lifestyle makes sense for you. And to answer this question you need a glimpse inside the process. (Mother Earth News)

Wood Heat
Wood is a totally renewable resource. If you live on a lot of property, there are seemingly endless reserves of standing-dead trees that can be harvested in a responsible way. We scored more than eight cords this year by doing responsible tree-felling in the woods at Better Farm alone, and there is plenty more where that came from. A few wood heat facts:
  • Wood-burning stoves are better in environmental terms as the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is the same as that absorbed by the tree during growth.
  • Trees are a renewable resource (particularly when derived from plantations and cultivated woodland; or in our case, when you plant new trees and only cut down standing-dead ones). 
  • Wood ashes can be used very successfully in the vegetable garden (except in the area where you plan to grow potatoes). Mix the ash thoroughly with your soil. Tomatoes seem to benefit especially from soil that has been mixed with a small quantity of wood ash.
  • Nothing is cozier than sitting around inside on a frigid day in front of a toasty-warm wood stove. Nothing.

Care to share your methods of alternative heat? Email info@betterfarm.org.