The Cost of Cold: When the only option is diesel

Fuel tank farm in Wales, Alaska. (Photo by Jenn Ruckel/KNOM)

How much do you pay to heat your home in the winter?

This week, Alaska’s Energy Desk is kicking off a new series called The Cost of Cold, looking at how Alaskans across the state keep warm at home.

There are a lot of options. Electricity, natural gas, wood, coal… even french fry oil.

But in much of rural Alaska, and even some cities, the primary heating source is diesel, also called heating fuel.

Many families in some of Alaska’s largest cities, like Juneau and Fairbanks, rely primarily on heating fuel. In rural parts of the state, even more people do. Take the Nome area, for example where, 90 percent of households use heating fuel according to U.S. Census data.

And it is not cheap. Cady Lister is chief economist with Alaska Energy Authority, a state corporation that works to reduce the cost of energy.

“If you are in a small isolated village that has to have fuel flow in, or even just barged in, but just at a high cost, you still are paying amongst the highest cost for heating fuel and for electricity in the country,” she said.

Just how high is the cost of heating fuel? It varies wildly across the state Lister says.

The state surveys communities on the cost of heating fuel twice a year. In the most recent survey, the lowest price was $1.40 in Atqasuk, on the North Slope, where the borough subsidizes the price.

“And the highest was Shishmaref at a little over $15 per gallon, which is pretty astronomical,” she said.

Even heating fuel at about $4.50 a gallon, which is close to the state average right now, can put a significant economic strain on families. For example, in the lower Yukon Kuskokwim region, families spend an average of 26 percent of their income on heat and electricity. Compare that to the railbelt, where that figure is a little less than seven percent.  

Lister says given that economic burden, residents are pretty resourceful — they find other ways to heat their homes, like wood.

“If you’re in a place where there’s a lot of forest and a lot of wood and biomass around, you’re obviously going to have households that are taking advantage of that resource,” she said. “There are large parts of the state where there are not a lot of trees and there’s not a lot of option in terms of what you use to heat your home.”

Even in treeless communities though, residents often find ways to scavenge for wood. In places where cord wood is for sale, Lister says one of the things people like about that option is that the cost is relatively stable.

“Over the last ten years, we see it’s 200 – 300 dollars a cord and there’s not a whole lot of change to that. It doesn’t really follow the price of heating fuel like it could. And that is a benefit to people,” she said.

But Lister says no matter where you are or how you heat your home, the single most effective way to mitigate the high cost of fuel is energy efficiency.

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