I was taken aback some years while playing with various ideas for heating my house ago to realize that natural gas was significantly cheaper than wood. Here is a table that illustrates that.
- Coal – Powder River Basin – $0.56
- Coal – Northern Appalachia – $2.08
- Natural gas – $5.69
- Ethanol tax credit – $5.92
- Propane – $13.28
- Petroleum – $13.43
- #2 Heating oil – $14.74
- Jet fuel – $15.48
- Diesel – $15.59
- Wood pellets – $17.33
- Gasoline – $17.81
- Corn ethanol – $23.46
- Electricity – $26.31
- Cellulosic ethanol from corn cobs – $30.92
I also spent a bit of time looking at coal as an alternative. As a child I lived for a period in Pittsburgh and the house had an unused coal bin in the basement. The house was heated with natural gas. It turns out mankind has burnt all the good coal, and what is left is harder to burn. It stinks, so you need to have a lot of scale to handle it well.
That natural gas is so dominate says something about housing density. Quarter acre plots are probably the upper limit of when it’s worth running the pipes. Of course that distribution infrastructure is a tempting target for monopolists.
Those numbers are US based. Natural gas is less reliable and more expensive in Europe. I mentioned monopolists didn’t I? Ben recently did an wrote something similar, looking at biomass, for rural Britain and he too make the point the author of that table makes, that “there just isn’t enough biomass to meet present energy demands.” While that point is right on, I don’t think we are going to find the one solution; or at least not for quite a while.