Ole Keynesian: The Everyday Environmentalist heats the house

This post is by reader Ole Keynesian.


In my last post I walked through a simple scenario to show how a recycling decision may or may not change if economics is left out of the equation. It’s virtually impossible to ignore economics on the big questions (carbon sequestration, desalinization, buying a hybrid car), but if a purely environmental thought process is used at the micro level, where money isn’t an issue, perhaps we can discover ways to think differently at the macro level as well.

The thermostat in the hallway says 65. I’d rather it said 68. I only have two choices – raise the thermostat to 68 and let the miracle of natural gas take over, or build a cozy fire in the woodstove.

The natural gas for the furnace is delivered under pressure by pipeline from a “gathering system” which may be hundreds of miles from my home.

Yow! That’s more information than I really wanted. So the incremental environmental cost of getting that fuel to me includes the incremental portion of the energy used to build the transmission system, the gathering system, the compressor stations, the computer systems used to regulate the distribution, etc. The burning process releases exhaust gasses, more or less depending on the type of furnace I’m using.

The wood for the woodstove didn’t just fall to earth in 16 inch rounds. I either cut it with a handsaw and split it with an awl (yeah, right), or I bought it from someone who drove his truck out into the woods, cut and split it with a chainsaw, and delivered it to me in the same truck. OK, there’s the gasoline used for the truck and the chainsaw, the exhaust produced by both, and the incremental rubber left on the road from the two truck trips, among other things. When I burn the wood, if the stove is efficient it will burn very hot and minimize the carbon deposits in the flue. Either way, a a chemical stew billows out of the chimney.

I can’t regulate the woodstove temperature as easily as I can the gas furnace, so it will probably be 70 degrees in the house before the fire gets banked down.

So which way is better? It sounds like gas heat is less environmentally damaging overall, but does the answer change if I need to raise the temperature twenty degrees instead of three? Or if I have a pellet stove? Or if the furnace is propane? Or electric? How about an electric space heater?

I think I’ll just put on another sweater. Hmmm… was it made in China?