Coping with High Energy Costs

Posted: November 1, 2005

We are all aware of the dire constraints we may be facing this winter because of the dramatic increases in the prices of all forms of energy, except electricity. Fortunately, the autumn weather has been quite mild thus far, so we have not needed too much fuel for space heating purposes yet.

With the "roller coaster" prices of energy, one must always decide which energy is cheaper. For example, if propane sells for $2.50 per gallon and #2 fuel oil sells for $2.80 per gallon, which is cheaper? Don’t be tempted to say that propane is cheaper just because it costs 30 cents less per gallon!

The only way to decide which fuel is cheaper is to compare the cost of each on the basis of dollars per million BTU. The use of the Energy Cost Calculator (available on-line at will be very helpful to compare the costs of many different traditional and non-traditional fuels on the basis of $/million BTU. At the web site, click on the first link to "Energy Cost Calculator". At the bottom of the screen that appears, click to download an Excel spreadsheet that calculates $/million BTU for the prices that you insert in column E. You can then get the graphical version of the calculations on the second page of the Excel workbook.

A gallon of #2 fuel oil contains about 138,000 BTU whereas the energy content of a gallon of propane is only about 92,000 BTU. Considering combustion efficiencies of 80 percent and 85 percent for fuel oil and propane, respectively, the cost for fuel oil (at $2.80 per gallon) is $25.36 per million BTU compared to $31.97 per million BTU for propane (at $2.50 per gallon). Therefore, fuel oil is clearly the cheaper fuel.

Of course, prices of energy are likely to continue oscillating back and forth, so it is very desirable to develop dual-fuel capability. Switching from propane to natural gas, and vice versa, is very easy. Dual-fuel capability of fuel oil and propane is more involved, but should still be seriously considered. In fact, some people are now considering triple-fuel capability with electricity being one of the energy sources.

You may be surprised to learn that using electricity for resistance heating – once thought to be prohibitively expensive – is now competitive with some of the fossil fuels. In fact, electricity is substantially cheaper than liquid fossil fuels in the central part of Pennsylvania where the retail price of electricity is about 6.7 cents per kWh.

As you struggle to cope with the high prices of energy, don’t forget the opportunities for increasing your energy efficiency. Using the semantics of 20-30 years ago, don’t forget energy conservation. (See the companion article in this issue dealing specifically with energy efficiency.)

While we are all interested in finding a solution to the challenges of high energy prices, we must realize that we can reduce energy use by 30-40 percent painlessly through improving energy efficiency. Using bio-diesel, ethanol, wind power, solar power, and all the other things you hear about can individually only make miniscule contributions to reducing our nation’s energy appetite for fossil fuels. Energy efficiency improvements really make the big contributions, and at the same time, you will be saving money. That’s a real win-win situation!



Dennis Buffington
Agricultural and Biological Engineering