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Total reliance on electric heat is a dangerous game during Northeast winters

31 October 2022

The regional power grids serving New England and New York are both at critical risk of maxing out as the Northeast prepares for a potentially brutal winter and the prospect of rolling blackouts or storm-related outages.

Natural gas supplies are at near record lows and demand on the power grids is being driven higher by increased electrical vehicle use and a push to exclusively use electricity for heating homes. That’s bad policy in one of the coldest regions for winter in all of the U.S., and it will contribute to making the grids less reliable in the event of severe cold weather conditions.

We’ve already been warned by grid operators that winter power outages and other weather-related disruptions could devastate millions of residents in the Northeast, as seen not long ago in Texas. Over-reliance on electric heat is a dangerous risk when weather events threaten to thrust households and families into the cold for days or even weeks.

This problem is not going away. In fact it’s only getting worse. Energy security is more important than ever as global events have dramatically impacted supplies and driven costs to record levels.

Imported liquefied natural gas is crucial for the Northeast to cover supply gaps during the winter months. Yet disruption in pipelines, closing of pipelines, the war in Ukraine and Russia’s disruption of supplies through its pipeline are already a threat to our energy supplies. A tough winter could mean real problems as global demand for natural gas reduces the availability of supplies for gas-powered electric plants.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported

“The region’s power-grid operator, ISO New England Inc., has warned that an extremely cold winter could strain the reliability of the grid and potentially result in the need for rolling blackouts to keep electricity supply and demand in balance. The warning comes as executives and analysts predict power producers could have to pay as much as several times more than last year for gas deliveries if severe weather creates urgent need for spot-market purchases.”

“Demand is growing not just regionally and nationally for natural gas, but globally as well. And that global competition is having a direct impact on the cost and availability of fuel to heat homes in New England and New York,” said Joel Etter, President of the Northeast Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (NEHPBA). “The timing could not be worse for any initiative to purposely reduce gas supplies and artificially impact demand by harming energy diversity with building regulations and other measures.”

NEHPBA supports the recent request by New England to the U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm that domestic LNG imports be allowed to the region. We also agree that more coordination is needed with the federal government to ensure energy reliability and diversity.

Expanding our national energy portfolio and supply resources to include more renewable sources is crucial, and NEHPBA supports that as New England, New York and the entire U.S. work to achieve important climate goals. But that is not a transition that can be made abruptly without serious risk to households and families.

“If you are heating your home exclusively with electricity in the Northeast, your bills this winter will be the highest they’ve been in years,” said NEHPBA Executive Director Karen Arpino. “The idea that you must also prepare for a potentially dangerous situation with no heat for several days because the power grid can’t keep up is troubling.”

Rising fuel costs spark rush to buy firewood and stoves for home heating - NEHPBA in the News!

18 October 2022

Consumers also looking to buy wood stoves, chainsaws

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Lou Faraone has what he describes as four miles' worth of seasoned firewood, laid end to end, so he’s confident he’s got enough to meet demand. 

But some days he figures he could use even more.

“It’s been a crazy year,” said Faraone who operates Exit 15N Firewood here.

More and more homeowners call or email him every time there is news about another increase in energy and heating costs for the coming winter.

Lou Faraone started selling firewood as a third career. He started in Malta and moved to Wilton to expand the business. He sells wood for cooking to 52 local restaurants. Video: Times Union

Others agree that rising gas, electricity, oil and even propane prices have prompted many New Yorkers to turn to firewood for heat.

Some may have old stoves purchased years ago which are being pressed back into service while others are looking at new installations.

“When fuel costs more they are going to look at wood,” said Victor Cardona, who operates Firewood Connect, an on-line directory that allows customers to contact local firewood sellers.

Heating costs are certainly expected to jump this winter.

Earlier this year, National Grid, which supplies natural gas and electricity across much of the Capital Region and upstate New York, predicted that heating bills will rise 31 percent during the five-month winter heating period that starts in November. The average residential customer is expected to pay $651 over the five-month period, or an increase of $155. It’s the biggest increase in more than a decade.

Other forms of heating are going up as well.

Propane, derived from natural gas and which is popular in rural locations without gas line hookups, was selling for $3.46 a gallon in September, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, NYSERDA. In 2020 it was $2.46 a gallon.

Electricity is up almost 46 percent year over year as of June, according to NYSERDA.

With high demand, wood costs are also rising. Some providers like Advantage Tree Service in Delmar, have held prices at $395 per cord delivered (within a five mile radius) for the past two years.

But others are charging more this year, although some charged under $300 in past years.

A cord is 128 cubic feet of stacked wood, or 4-by-8 feet of 4-foot long split logs.

Homeowners also are shopping for more wood stoves.

“There’s a ton of people,” said Lucas Stritsman, who operates Best Fire Hearth and Patio in Colonie.

“People want to hedge their energy position,” he said.

Like others in the industry, the store has its roots in the 1970s Arab oil embargo, which led to gasoline lines at service stations and a newfound concern over fuel scarcity.

While energy prices are the underlying spark of this latest boom, customer interest can be inflamed by specific changes in the weather or by news events.

“We see a lot more interest when it gets cooler,” said Cardona.

News events also add to the interest in wood. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, as most people now know, has caused a global rise in oil and gas prices.

Faraone noted that more people seemed to come in last month, after radio show host Glenn Beck, in a commentary about rising fuel prices proclaimed that “firewood is the new gold."

And Stritsman says some customers are looking to get wood stoves since they are worried about the possibility that gas appliances won’t be available in future years.

The state’s appointed Climate Action Council, which is developing guidance for greenhouse gas reduction policies, is looking at bans on new gas appliances and on new gas hookups in future years. The group is also looking at reducing the use of wood, which can emit soot and other harmful compounds.

That possibility has also driven up interest by buyers who may want gas fireplace inserts and fear they'll be unavailable in the future.

Either way, changing regulations are having an impact on sales, and that’s especially true for wood stoves, said Karen Arpino, executive director for the Northeast Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association, a trade group that includes wood stove sellers.

Wood stoves are currently in short supply in part because of tougher EPA emissions rules that took effect in 2020. Stoves made prior to May 2020, when the new regulations took effect, had to be dismantled.

The newer stoves are far cleaner and more efficient than their older cousins, but the new regulations took tens of thousands of stoves, that had already been manufactured, off the market.

Modern wood stoves can easily cost $3,000 or more, Arpino added. Set-up costs including installation of proper flues and safety features can add thousands of dollars additionally.

The forced retirement of pre-2020 stoves, combined with the same kind of pandemic-era labor shortages that plague all businesses, has led to shortfalls in stove production.

“It was a massive economic hurdle,” said Arpino. “Now it’s just a fight for products.”

Worker shortages aren’t just in the stove-making business. Some wood providers are struggling to get enough sawyers to keep up with demand.

“They just don’t want to work,” said Pam, who didn’t give her last name and who works at Anjoe Tree Service in Albany, one of several tree removal and trimming companies that also sell firewood.

They could use a couple more wood cutters, who can earn up to $30-an-hour with experience, she said.

“They work a couple days and maybe a week and realize it’s a little more (effort) than they thought,” she said, referring to people who try to work in the firewood business but can’t cut it.

Times Union, Rick Karlin, Oct. 16, 2022 

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