Well, things do not look at all encouraging in the markets or the economy as a whole. The one silver lining that I can find right now is that the price of oil has dropped to around $96 a barrel as I write this. How quickly we rejigger our ideas about "good" oil prices! Like many people in the northeastern US, we heat our home with oil. So right now feels like a "good" time to top off our fuel supply for the winter.
We're equipped with only one smallish oil tank, giving us just a 275 gallon capacity. Right now our one tank is at 3/8 full. Our delivery service hits us with an extra delivery charge if we don't have at least 175 gallons delivered. In other words, we have to get down to about 1/4 of a tank before we can dodge that extra fee, which of course we want to do. They never completely top off the tank when they deliver. I guess they don't want to risk overfilling and causing a spill. Even if we start the winter with a full tank, we'll almost certainly need another delivery to get us through 'til spring. Of course, I pull out the stops as far as frugal tricks go to save money on heating expenses (on which, more to come soon). All the same, at today's prices we're looking at a cost of at least $1200 to make it through the winter. Ouch.
Our backup heating system is a propane fireplace insert in the new addition of our home. It would do for us in a power loss of short duration, say five days at the outside. Our stovetop runs on propane from the same tank, so we can cook and heat part of our house at least for a little while without electricity. We're very close to a major hospital, and I'm pretty sure we're on the same electrical grid, because we've never lost power for more than a few seconds, when others not all that far away have gone without for several hours. So chances are that things would have to be very bad before we would go without electricity for any significant length of time. Still, our propane supply is in small tanks we have to refill ourselves, and propane is a fossil fuel, which means it too will be problematic in the years ahead.
Even if we get a "deal" on our heating fuel oil this month, I look ahead and know with certainty that we need to find some other way to keep ourselves warm through the many winters to come. Our home is not well situated for an outdoor wood furnace; the neighbor's houses are too close in most directions to easily meet code with one of these. We could put in an indoor wood stove, but we have no significant supply of our own wood. So that would mean buying wood, which I expect to go up in price through the years. And then we'd have the mess of an indoor fire. Regionally, we're in a marginal area for solar power, especially in winter, and our micro-region isn't all that great for wind either.
Given all these imperfect solutions, I'm thinking about the outdoor furnace for the long term. I've seen one of these at work in the home of an acquaintance, and they seem quite manageable for our current lifestyle of two healthy, reasonably active, youngish adults, with at least one person home most of the day. Getting one would involve some retrofitting of the house, which I know would not be cheap. In fact, I'm sure it would be downright expensive. And it would lock us in to buying our fuel no less than we need to buy oil. Perhaps most worrisome is that the furnace still needs some electricity to pump heated water to and from the house. In the very long view, I can imagine a world where that's a problem. But at least it offers the prospect of clean heat (both in terms of pollution and indoor mess) and a renewable fuel source. We could work on generating a little electricity with solar power, and sourcing cheap or free firewood too, though I imagine through the years that market will become much tighter. Another downside is that I'll never be able to cook on an outdoor furnace.
There just aren't any perfect options for us. Long term we'd like to build a home on our land. The plan is to build a masonry heater into the core of our home, as the house goes up. The advantages are several. Masonry heaters are incredibly clean and efficient, they can be built to include a cookstove, they don't need any electricity to run, and our land is very well situated to take advantage of plentiful hardwood to burn. Alas, we aren't in that house yet. And truthfully, with the way things are going, I'm not confident we ever will be in that house. But we can hope and plan.
What are your plans for your longterm energy needs?