The fossil fuel industry is heavily promoting propane for heating use in the Northeast as an alternative to #2 heating oil.  Propane is preferable to #2 heating oil when emission of greenhouse gases is considered.

Propane is a versatile heating product, but it is more widely used in the petrochemical industry where it is used in the manufacture of plastics, fibers, cosmetics, and many other products.

It is important to understand as much as we can about our energy sources and their origins and likely persistence. To do that, it’s best to get beyond the advertising rhetoric when possible.

Propane is a fossil fuel.  It is not produced for its own sake but is a by-product of natural gas treatment where it is removed from natural gas to reduce condensation risks, and it is a by-product of the distillation of crude oil into lighter fractures.  (http://www.eia.doe.gov/bookshelf/brochures/propane/index.html)

It is reasonable to predict, then, that propane’s long-term availability will be linked to the availability of its two sources, natural gas and crude oil.  Its price generally fluctuates with the prices of #2 oil and natural gas, but it is much more expensive than either.

At 2010 mid-November prices in Maine, these are the prices per million BTUs of propane, #2 heating oil, and bulk-delivered wood pellets (the only renewable fuel in the grouping). (In Maine, natural gas service is only available in parts of the Portland, Bangor, and Lewiston/Auburn areas.  2009 natural gas pricing provided by the EIA at $16.43/1,000 cubic feet places natural gas at $19.33/mmBTU.)

The energy value and conversion efficiency assumptions underlying the costs are those used by the University of Pennsylvania in their energy cost calculator.

Propane at $2.64/gallon = $33.91/mmBTU

#2 heating oil at $2.88/gallon = $25.90/mmBTU

Premium wood pellets at $235/ton = $17.91/mmBTU

Wood pellets, burned in a central heating system, are a clean, renewable energy source for heating homes and businesses in the Northeast.  Their price has remained remarkably stable over the last decade, and production capability in our region far outstrips foreseeable demand.

Wood pellets are largely carbon neutral, so their consumption in place of any fossil fuel greatly reduces the extraordinarily large carbon footprint associated with residential and commercial heating in the Northeast.

There are many boilers in Northeastern homes that should be replaced because they are far less efficient than their modern counterparts or because they have outlived their service lives.

When your boiler needs replacement, be certain to consider an automatic pellet boiler system.  When you choose wood pellets for your heating needs, your fuel will be clean, it will be inexpensive, and it will be produced in your home region.

Dutch Dresser, Managing Director of Maine Energy Systems, an importer and manufacturer of automatic pellet boiler systems.