Some homeowners turn to coal for heat

High oil prices drive Mat-Su Valley residents to seek out alternative

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The high cost of heating oil prices has some homeowners in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough turning to coal.

Houston homeowner Roger Purcell used his family's state energy rebate money to buy a coal stove after a fill-up of his heating oil tanks took a big bite out of his bank account.

"We're hoping to cut our fuel cost this year in half of what we had last year," Purcell said. "For the price and the reduction of fuel, it made it very cost efficient - just in the first month in a half, the furnace will pay for itself."

Purcell had been skeptical about using coal.

"I remember as a kid we used to always have the old 55-gallon drum in my grandfather's shop out here when he was running the tractors," he said. "And he'd bring the big chunks of coal in, throw the wood, throw it in there. Of course it leaked and it smoked and it smelled, and so I was like, 'I don't want coal in my house, I don't want that dirty stuff around and the smell and having to shovel it out."'

A neighbor helped him change his mind.

"I was just joking around with him and I said, 'Well how much did you spend last year?' He said, 'I only went through about 500 gallons for the winter,' and that stopped me dead in my tracks," Purcell said.

Walt and Dody Clifford built their home last year and decided to install a coal stove because of the lack of wood in Houston.

"Coal will outlast wood probably 2-to-1, I would say," Walt Clifford said.

The Cliffords also have an oil furnace but use the coal stove as their primary heat source in a nearly 3,000-square-foot home. They use about five tons of coal and paid $200 a ton for their supply this year.

Coal is cheaper, but there's work involved.

Walt Clifford transfers coal from a nearby shed to the front porch and uses coffee cans to keep from touching it while feeding the stove.

The Cliffords were surprised to see what little mess it makes.

"You get a little dust from the ashes when you clean the ashes out," Walt Clifford said.

Rick Dilley, owner of Cozy Coal, said coal has a bad reputation.

"I tell 'em it's not like what you see in the old western movies," Dilley said.

Coal burns more efficiently than wood, Dilley said, and it's far cheaper than heating oil.

Dilley burned firewood until he learned about coal and it motivated him to get in to the business.

"I consider coal 80 percent easier than firewood," he said. "We know what the coal is going to be like, firewood you never know what you're going to get, really."

Dilley distributes Healy coal. It has been rated the cleanest coal in the nation, he said, because it has low sulfur, which can cause acid rain and other environmental problems.

"People have a misconception about coal," Dilley said. "Especially new clean-burning technology - (it's) not the fuel of the past, it's the fuel of the future."

Not everybody is happy to see expansion of coal use.

"It's important that they look at what the impacts of that decision might be to them and to other people around," said Mat-Su resident Tim Leach, organizer of the Alaska Coal Working Group.

Emissions from burning coal have nitrogen oxides, the culprit for smog, Leach said. Even before it's burned, he said, coal can cause health problems.

"Particulates even before burning coal - as you're handling it, as you're moving the coal from wherever you're extracting it to the location you're storing it on your property - is something there," Leach said.

Though coal from Healy has been rated the cleanest, Leach said, that does not mean it doesn't contain harmful particulate and emissions.

"But we still at this point have extraordinarily expensive energy costs," Leach said. "We need something that produces clean and reliable power, and coal isn't going to be that source whether it's at the residential level or at the utility level."



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