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Why I bought two tons of wood heating pellets

With the winter coming, CNET's Martin LaMonica gets a fresh load of home heating pellets and takes stock of the growing mix of home energy options.

It's not often that I handle a ton of anything but I recently took delivery of 2 tons of wood pellets for home heating. Pellets aren't perfect but I see them as one of the ways consumers can diversify their energy sources and "go green" on a personal level.

The pellets, which are compressed sawdust, come in 40-pound bags stacked about 5 feet high on wood pallets. Those 2 tons, stashed in my garage until the cold weather hits, will cover the bulk of my household heating needs for the coming season.

Wood pellets from sawdust Martin LaMonica/CNET

It happened to be a crisp sunny day when the pellet delivery man came, and just for fun I checked what the production of my solar photovoltaic panels was. The 2,100 watts the panels were producing was far more than I was using at the moment so my electricity meter was spinning backward (in a figurative sense since the meter is digital).

Back in the '70s, "living off the grid" with solar and wood fuel was held up as the ideal in environmentally friendly living because it allowed people to be self-sufficient. But in my view, a far more accessible and scalable approach is for people to use a mix of conventional and alternative energy sources and to emphasize efficiency above all else.

Although I certainly didn't plan it this way, this sort of hybrid system is effectively what's operating at my house (and in my driveway), which is true for anyone else who has taken steps to cut back on their fossil fuel use.

Home fires burning
Looking at last year's bills, I found that the wood pellets represent two-thirds of our heating needs. (If our natural gas boiler weren't as old and inefficient as it is, the pellets would make a bigger contribution percentage-wise to heating.)

The home electricity system is a mix of sources, too. The solar PV panels are tied to the grid, so when the roof generates more power than the home is using, the meter spins backward and chips away at the monthly bill. At night or when it's cloudy, electricity comes from the grid, which is powered mostly by natural gas, coal, and nuclear.

In the summer, the net effect of solar is that the house produces a bit more than it uses. But in the winter with the shorter days and the electric pellet stove going steadily, we use more electricity than we produce. Over three years, the yearly net electricity usage is about at zero, meaning the household consumes as much electricity as the roof produces.

Is a hybrid home energy system economical? That depends on a lot of factors, notably energy prices, and the efficiency of your heating sources. The Pellet Fuels Institute uses national averages to show that pellet heating is cheaper than heating with oil or propane. Based on national averages and estimates on heating appliance efficiencies, pellets come out a bit more expensive than natural gas and heating with hard wood.

Solar photovoltaics also depend on local electricity prices, how good your solar resource is (don't bother if you have a lot of shade), and state incentives. In my case, the return on investment will probably be more than 10 years but falling solar prices are leading to quicker pay-backs on purchases and broader availability of solar panel leasing.

Environmental impact
Solar electric and solar hot water are certainly a good deal environmentally. The story on wood pellets is a bit more nuanced.

Pellets come from a renewable source but forests need to be properly managed to be renewable in the long term. The carbon dioxide from burning the wood will be reabsorbed by new trees, again assuming you're managing forests well. The pellets I've bought in previous years were sourced from the U.S. and Canada. This year I'm trying some from nearby Vermont.

Packing away some BTUs - what 1 ton of pellets looks like. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Burning creates air pollutants and pellets have a higher level of particulate matter than burning natural gas or oil. In general, you should go with an EPA-certified wood and pellet stoves which will burn more efficiently and cleanly.

One way I think about investing in solar or buying wood pellets is that one is buying energy in advance. In the case of solar, I've fixed into a price for a source of energy (sunlight) which shields me from rising electricity prices. The pellets are much more concrete: I'm buying a season's heat and packing it away until I need it. (The last couple of years I had to actually stack the bags myself--there's labor required.)

There are lots of other great alternative home energy sources, including ground-source heat pumps, which are also called geothermal heating and cooling. But whichever mode you go with, efficiency is your friend. It's worth taking steps to cut down electricity use and weatherize your home or apartment.

Saying you have a hybrid home energy system may not sound at cool as living off the grid. But you don't need to "go back to the land" to pursue a low-energy lifestyle.