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Biomass Heat in the Natural Gas Era

By Daniel Ciolkosz
Is wood heat still a good value?
Average PA Natural Gas Prices for Residential Customers (EIA)
We often hear claims that the shale gas boom has made Natural Gas the obvious choice as a heating fuel. Is this really the case? Like so many things, when you look at the details, the answer is not as clear cut as one might think.
Natural Gas Prices Vary and are Rising
The first interesting thing to note is that natural gas prices vary widely over the course of the year, with the highest prices occurring in the summer. In fact, midsummer natural gas prices are often 80-90% higher than in midwinter, due to heavy use of natural gas for peak electricity production to meet air conditioning loads. This is good news for people wishing to use natural gas heat in the winter, when prices are lower.
Wood Heat Costs Vary But Can be Quite Low
If we look at US Department of Energy data for the average residential price of Natural Gas during the winter heating season, we find that natural gas heating prices have risen for the second straight year, and are now at about $12.50 per gigajoule (assuming 80% efficient utilization). Does this mean that natural gas is expensive or not, relative to wood heat? Well, that depends. Wood pellets are more expensive than natural gas at present, while cordwood purchased from suppliers is similar in cost to natural gas, depending on the price you pay for your cordwood. Of course, if you cut your own cordwood on land you own or on state forest land (with a permit), the cost of cordwood becomes much lower than that of natural gas. Propane, at a statewide average price of $3.10 per gallon, is much more expensive than either natural gas or wood heat. Fuel oil appears to be priced slightly lower than propane in Pennsylvania this year. Keep in mind that these numbers are averages, so the price you are paying may be different, depending on where you are.
Typical Cost of Heating Fuel

Energy Source

Cost per Useful Gigajoule of Heat

Is it Renewable?


Natural Gas



Average PA Residential Price




$3.10 per gallon

Fuel Oil



$2.60 per gallon

Wood Pellets



$4.79 per bag




$175 per cord

Will natural gas prices continue to rise? The future is always difficult to predict, but it is possible that, if the gas to liquids plant in Southwest PA comes on line in the near future, its large demand for natural gas will continue the upward pressure on natural gas prices for all. Of course, the same uncertainty applies to future prices of all fuels, including wood for heat.
Which Should You Use?
The question most people have when they compare heating fuels has to do with deciding which would be best for their home’s heating system. Well, if operating cost is your primary consideration, cordwood or Natural Gas (if available) are your best bets. If convenience of use is important, wood pellets become more attractive, as do natural gas, propane, and fuel oil. If renewability and ecological impact are important to you, Wood based heating from cordwood or wood pellets become more favorable. In the end analysis, most of us probably value all three: Low Cost, Convenience, and Renewability, and it comes down to deciding how much those attributes matter to each of us individually.