January 8, 2010

10 in 10: Consider Heating Your Home with Biomass

Leo Horrigan, MHS

Leo Horrigan, MHS

CLF Correspondent

Center for a Livable Future


A new decade brings new opportunities and challenges. The interaction between diet and health received significant attention during “The Aughts.” What will we do during this next decade to respond to the call for action for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle? This is the third in a continuing series highlighting 10 ways you can help this year.

This new year, make it your resolution to put your home on a carbon diet. We did it a few years ago, and have reaped many rewards. Since March of 2006, a corn-burning stove has occupied one corner of our living room. It’s a nice thing to cozy up to on a cold winter’s eve, but the stove is more than just a nice aesthetic addition to our home, it’s also our main source of heat. Beyond that, it provides economic benefits to our family and region, and environmental benefits to everyone.

Our corn stove looks a lot like this one

Our corn stove looks a lot like this one

Meanwhile, the oil furnace in our basement has become our backup heating system, used sparingly, such as when the temperatures dip well below freezing and the stove needs a little help heating the house. Our oil use has been so sparing that we went three years between oil deliveries – which was very confusing to the company that delivers our heating oil. That company would call us periodically wondering why we hadn’t needed a delivery in so long. After all, in those years B.C. (before corn) we would fill our oil tank a few times per heating season.

Now, we instead burn roughly four tons of corn (and just a little bit of oil) to get through a heating season. We are lowering our carbon footprint while also lowering our heating bills. The carbon we emit from our corn stove is carbon that was captured by the crop as it grew. Of course, we’re not burning the whole plant, so some of its captured carbon becomes incorporated into soil. If the corn is grown in a sustainable way – without a lot of fossil fuel use for pesticides or synthetic fertilizers – we end up with a net carbon benefit.

Our family buys fuel corn from a local co-op called Baltimore Biomass, which buys it from a turkey farmer who’s only about 45 miles west of Baltimore, the same farmer who also supplies a co-op in Takoma Park, Md. So, biomass heating makes for a more localized energy economy when compared to fossil-fuel supplies that usually travel thousands of miles.

I use the term “biomass” because stoves like ours will burn not just corn but any biomass that is dry and dense, and small enough to pass through the stove’s auger. This could include wood pellets or more exotic fuels such as olive pits or cherry pits; it’s just that corn fields are easier to find than olive groves ’round these parts.

The price of corn has tended to be more stable than the price of oil or natural gas, but all of these prices are very variable. Over the long term, though, corn has been comparing very favorably to these other methods of home heating when it comes to price. For the most up-to-date comparison, you can use this chart and plug in current prices for each fuel.

If you want to learn more about biomass heating, Baltimore Biomass has an excellent list of resources to get you started.

Most importantly, I made it through this whole blog post without making any corny jokes – which tend to pop up a lot.

— Leo Horrigan

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