New England worried about heating oil prices for 2009

Real fear among many people I talk to locally. Those who aren’t wealthy can’t see a way to keep their homes heated and still afford to live in them. Those people with a couple of thousand in extra cash are opting for wood pellet stoves. My local wood stove retailer is seeing this, they used to sell a couple a week, now it is four or five a day.

We just moved back to California from Connecticut. Heating oil in Winter 2007 was $1.95 a gallon, which was considered very high. Our last bill (just before we sold the house) was on May 5 2008 at $3.72 a gallon. It was costing us $150 a week during the worst of winter with the thermostat set at 64 during the day and 55 at night. (We now live in the S.F. Bay Area where heating costs are way less and we don’t even have or need AC.)

An AP article says some heating oil suppliers are offering a lock-in prices for 2009 at $4.60. Yikes. The average home there uses 1,000 gallons a year, with the vast bulk of that in five months. So at $4.60 a gallon that works out to about $900 a month for the five months of cold weather or over $200 a week just to keep the house warm.

If these prices are not a bubble, then the Northeast is in serious trouble. Connecticut magnifies the problems by having extremely expensive electricity, nosebleed property taxes, and a comatose attitude towards energy conservation, efficiency, and planning for the future. Yet state government continues to appoint committees to determine why the young are leaving the state. That’s what I mean by comatose. The reasons are obvious. They can’t afford to stay and not much is going on anyway. (I grew up in Connecticut BTW.)

There were numerous reports in the media of people unable to pay heating bills or forced to keep the house at 55 degrees (or less) all the time and wear a hat and coat inside constantly.

What will they do next year if prices rise more? This is a regional problem that requires a regional (or national) solution. One big problem, at least in Connecticut, is that there are no county governments or regional authorities (except for a few water boards.) Instead you have the townships, who steadfastly and proudly refuse to share power or join forces with any other township, and the state government, and no entities in between the two. Such a quaint system might have worked in colonial times, but The World is Flat now, and dealing with a serious ongoing energy crisis will require cooperation, new ideas, thinking outside the box, and most of all, a regional plan. The alternative is to freeze in the dark.


  1. Hi Bob,

    I live in Philadelphia and I have kept my somewhat crappy apartment on a busy street because the rent is a good deal and heat is included – and this is gas heat. There is no way I could afford to pay it right now.

    I was just talking to my mother, who lives in rural Vermont, about the price of gas. She said that she wasn’t as worried about that as she was the price of heating oil. It is currently $4.50/gallon. She keeps her house really cold and still uses a minimum of 800 gallons, which is $3,600. She said she wished that heating costs was something that Obama had discussed in his speeches. It’s great that he wants to invest in alternative energy but there is serious problem right now for people who are not going to be able to afford to keep warm.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. There’s no easy answer. Maine is providing subsidies for homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient. Better windows, plug leaks that allow the warm indoor air to leak outside, etc. This is a good idea but the real problem is all those homes heated by oil. They would need natural gas lines to the home, then replace the furnace. Assuming natural gas prices don’t spike…

    Wood pellet and efficient add-on stoves for the fireplace help, but they don’t heat the bedroom, etc. Regular fireplaces are terrible polluters and not that efficient, as too often the warm air just goes up the chimney when the fire isn’t blazing.

  3. Bob and I looked into converting the house to a split system, with the ability to heat with natural gas or heating oil. Gas was at that time less expensive than oil — enough of a savings to consider the trouble and expense of a conversion. However, the gas main terminated on the main road leading to our cul de sac. Connecticut Natural Gas was willing to consider extending the main into our street, but only if the majority of our neighbors agreed to convert to natural gas and only if after conversion costs there was still a profit for CNG.

    We researched other options. There were no savings with propane, which would have also given us a big ugly tank to look at or bury. One of our neighbors heated with wood pellets and didn’t like the cleaning and maintenance required, so switched to regular wood. Wood heat is less expensive, we found, only if you cut and stack it yourself. We were willing and able to do that. Wood is also not an “automatic” heating system — somebody has to get up and throw another log on the fire.

    But it seemed that buying a high-efficiency wood stove — one with a catalytic burner to reduce polution — was the best option. Wood stoves are usually metal, but also are made with soapstone which retains heat for a long time. We had a plan to rip out or convert the 70’s stone fireplace for this purpose, and also to somehow extend the heating system into the master bedroom which backed onto the livingroom.

    But then we moved. Best option. (For us).

  4. Another problem is NIMBYism. Plans to put a LNG terminal in Long Island Sound have been sandbagged by the State of New York, with applause from the Connecticut government.

    Why? Oh, they look ugly and might be dangerous.

    But my brother-in-law, an environmental engineer, says they are quite safe, and not one offshore LNG terminal anywhere has ever had major problems.

    No one wants dangerous projects, but this one isn’t and New England needs all the LNG it can get. (BTW, NJ already has such a terminal.)

  5. Natural gas has already begun to spike, along with coal, so that train has left the station. Besides, more demand means higher prices. Propane doesn’t require gas mains– it gets delivered to your tank by truck– but that spiked last year, too. Our price went from $1.95 in 2006 to $3.75 now.

    Most utilities, the Fed, and many states give credits for replacing windows and insulation with more efficient insulators. That will help, but as your say, it doesn’t solve the problem.

    We used to keep our thermostat at 55 during the day and 40 at night– we have a brick house, so it holds the heat pretty well. But when propane nearly doubled, we turned our furnace off completely. We now heat exclusively with wood. And when the temp goes to -30, we sometimes sleep in the living room where the wood stove is.

    At least a partial answer to the conundrum is lowered expectations: put on another sweater. But clean-burning wood stoves will likely take center stage, with oil or gas as a backup only (thermostat set at 40). I feel for those who don’t make much money– states will have to step in and help them with the capital expense of these stoves. Plus, you can expect the price of wood to spike once demand rises (and trees to start disappearing from public parks).

  6. Clean burning wood stoves are great in smaller homes. I guess for larger ones you need multiple stoves or some kind of venting sytsem to deliver the heated air (not even sure if that’s doable)

    It’s gets to -30 where you are? That is seriously cold (and I’m been in minus 30 once, don’t want to again…)

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