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Social Explorer Analysis: Fossil Fuel Heating Use Dropped Slightly Over Last Decade

TUESDAY, OCT 22, 2019

The percentage of U.S. households relying upon fossil fuels to heat their homes has fallen during the last decade – but only slightly, indicating a major challenge in a required shift to energy sources that don’t exacerbate climate change.

The number of households that relied upon natural gas, electricity, fuel oil, or coal for heat fell 0.5 percent between 2009 and 2017, according to a Social Explorer analysis of Census data that can be found here.

Visualize and analyze households using utility gas on the MSA level. Click here to explore further.


The figures highlight one of the major difficulties of shifting to a non-carbon-based economy to mitigate climate change. Home and commercial heating account for almost 12 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and heating sources are generally tied to geographical availability. Households in warm and humid climates such as the Southeastern U.S. tend to favor electrical heat, while New England and Alaskan homes are more frequently heated by fuel oil. Natural gas is popular in the upper Midwest and Mountain West. Homes in Hawaii and southern California are most likely to not have a heat source, according to the 2013-17 American Community Survey.

Half of the 10 places with the greatest percentage of homes using fossil fuels were in Texas, the nation’s largest producer of oil. The west Texas micropolitan areas of Plainview and Vernon tied for first in the nation, with 99.8 percent of homes using gas or electricity for heat. Four places reported 99.7 percent of households using fossil fuels to heat: Clarksdale, Miss.; Lamesa, Texas; Cleveland, Miss.; and Morgan City, La.

Natural gas, whether delivered via utility line or tank, is the most popular heating source for U.S. homes, with 53 percent of households reporting they used it to warm their houses. Detroit reported that 89.7 percent of residents used gas to heat their homes, the highest percentage in the nation. The Motor City was followed closely by Buffalo (89.3 percent) and Salt Lake City (89.1 percent).

Roughly 38 percent of U.S. homes are heated by electricity. Although it’s possible for hydropower to be the source of electricity, nuclear and natural gas-fired power plants are more common. Eighteen of the 20 places with the highest percentage of homes heated by electricity were in a state that doesn’t suffer from harsh winters – the Sunshine State, an ideal place for an expensive heat source. The south-central Florida cities of Sebring and Clewiston tied for the most households using electric heat, with 96.7 percent of homes reporting it as their primary heating source. Okeechobee (96.5 percent); Arcadia (96.1 percent); and Homosassa Springs (95.8 percent) rounded out the top five places where electricity was the most common heat source.

The Social Explorer analysis found only 128,511 households used coal for home heating; almost half of those were in Pennsylvania. Nine of the 10 places with the highest percentage of households using coal as a heat source were located in Pennsylvania; a tenth was in New York, only 15 miles from the border with Pennsylvania. Pottsville, Penn., reported 12.7 percent of its households used coal for heat; Somerset, Penn. (39.2 percent) was second, and DuBois, Penn. (6.4 percent) was third.

The percentage of households using fuel oil dropped significantly during the decade. Although 7.4 percent of homes were heated with it in 2009, the figure had dropped to barely 5 percent by 2017. Fuel oil was the most common heat source in Fairbanks, Alaska (69.3 percent); Augusta, Maine (68.1 percent); and Lewiston, Maine (64.1 percent). Even though fuel oil was used by a comfortable majority of homes in the three cities, its use fell 9.4 percent in Fairbanks, 14.6 percent in Augusta, and 14.2 percent in Lewiston.

Nine of the 10 places where wood was most commonly used for heat were located west of the Mississippi. Almost 44 percent of homes in the northern California micropolitan area of Susanville were heated with wood; other California places with heavy wood use included Sonora (26.2 percent) and Ukiah (23.1 percent).  New Mexico had three cities in the top 10 for wood heat, including No. 2 Las Vegas (39.2 percent), No. 3 Gallup (39.2 percent), and Taos (27.8 percent).

The four top places where households reported needing no heat were (predictably) in Hawaii, all on separate islands. Almost 80 percent of homes in Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city, said they didn’t need the heat. Kapa’a, on the east side of Kauai, was the second-least likely place to have heated homes at 78.6 percent, and the Maui metro of Kahului was No. 3 with 70.2 percent. The island chain’s most populous city, Honolulu, ranked No. 4 in the U.S. with 59.1 percent of households having no heat source.


Author: Frank Bass

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