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Why New England Is So Dependent on Heating Oil

heating oil

The choice of house heating fuel varies significantly from region to region in the U.S. Your options are influenced by local resources, climate, and historical infrastructure development. Natural gas, electricity, heating oil, propane, solar, wood, and coal or coke all play their part in keeping American homes warm. But the distribution of these heating sources is not uniform across the country.

Notably, New England stands out for its pronounced dependency on heating oil, a distinction that traces back to a combination of historical, geographical, and economic factors. This reliance on heating oil in contrast to the rest of the U.S., where natural gas and electricity are more prevalent, offers a fascinating lens through which to explore the complexities of energy use, infrastructure challenges, and the push towards more sustainable alternatives in the face of evolving environmental and economic landscapes.

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Home heating sources in New England

Below is a table detailing how occupied households heat their home in New England. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey, the most common source of house heating is utility gas, aka natural gas, which accounts for 47.14% of all occupied housing units in the country. Second place is held by electricity, which accounts for 40.25% of households; electricity predominates in warmer states of the Southeast, the Southwest, and the West Coast.

StateTotal Occupied Housing UnitsUtility gasBottled, tank, or LP gasElectricityFuel oil, kerosene, etc.Coal or cokeWoodSolar energyOther fuelNo fuel used
New Hampshire545,11621.22%17.80%10.45%41.74%0.10%5.99%0.17%1.75%0.78%
Rhode Island432,21954.35%4.28%11.27%27.65%0.05%1.21%0.09%0.61%0.48%

The category “fuel oil, kerosene, etc.” is the Census’s designation for what’s commonly called heating oil. For the U.S. overall, only 4.25% of all households utilize heating oil for their source of domestic heat. This is equivalent to over 5.3 million homes. In New England, however, heating oil accounts for 31.53% of households.

Maine features the highest proportion of homes using heating oil, with an outright majority of 59.31%. While natural gas pipelines do run through Maine, the network is not dense. Even in Maine’s largest city — Portland — which has a pipeline nearby, 33.86% of households rely on heating oil as against 39.68% using utility gas.

Massachusetts has the lowest proportion of households relying on heating oil, at 23.8% of homes. However, for such a heavily and densely populated state, having nearly a quarter of homes rely on heating oil is quite a lot. Rhode Island’s proportion is comparable, with 27.65% of households using heating oil. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts have the densest network of gas pipelines in New England, so the lower reliance on heating oil makes sense.

One of the more common home heating sources for states that have weak natural gas infrastructure is propane. For the U.S. overall, approximately 4.86% of occupied households use propane for home heating. In New England, this percentage tends to be higher. In New Hampshire, 17.8% of households rely on propane, and in Vermont, 18.21% of households rely on it for heating.

Reasons why New England relies so much on heating oil

New England’s reliance on heating oil as opposed to natural gas or other heating sources can be attributed to several key factors, distinct from much of the rest of the United States:

1. Little to no natural gas infrastructure

New England faces greater energy security challenges than many other areas due to its geographical position at the tail end of the supply chain for natural gas and other primary energy sources used for electricity generation. The region lacks local fossil fuel resources, necessitating the transportation of fuels over long distances via pipelines, ships, trucks, or barges. The natural gas pipeline infrastructure in New England is notably limited, restricting its connectivity to the broader North American network. This limitation heightens the risk of disruptions. Unlike areas with a more extensive pipeline system where a single failure might be isolated and bypassed, any disruption in New England is likely to have widespread effects.

There has been a significant increase in capacity for generating electricity from natural gas in the U.S. However, the infrastructure for transporting low-cost shale gas into the area hasn’t kept up. Pipelines are typically designed to cater to the needs of gas utility companies holding long-term capacity contracts, rather than electricity producers.

Gas utility companies secure long-term agreements necessary for encouraging the expansion of pipelines. Electricity producers, however, usually avoid these costly contracts and opt for securing fuel on an as-needed basis, depending on available pipeline capacity. This approach, while cost-effective and aiding in maintaining competitive prices in the electricity market, does not guarantee access to fuel. The absence of storage options for gas or electricity complicates their situation further, making it sensible for them to contract pipeline capacity only when necessary.

This strategy is effective for most parts of the year. However, during cold spells, when pipeline usage peaks to meet heating demands, the capacity limitations have repeatedly hindered fuel supply to power stations. This bottleneck has jeopardized electricity reliability and led to spikes in wholesale electricity prices and emissions during several recent winters.

2. Limited pipeline access

Linked to the issue of limited natural gas infrastructure is the limited access in pipelines. This is both due to geography and geology. Geographically, New England is very far from the sources of natural gas and its production. Geologically, New England is not suited for construction of underground pipelines, so they must be above-ground. And in such a densely populated and chronologically long-occupied region, above-ground pipelines are very difficult to build.

New England gas pipelines

As you can see from the map, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have the most access to natural gas. This fact is reflected in their house heating statistics from the Census Bureau. The lack of pipelines in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont help explain the higher proportion of homes relying on heating oil, propane, and electricity for their heat. Using electricity for your house’s heat is notoriously expensive (as anyone from the southern U.S. will tell you). Heating oil can be expensive too, but it also provides more heat per unit cost, so less fuel oil needs to be burned to generate the same amount of heat as natural gas or electricity. Propane is also a very efficient fuel, hence why it is very popular in New England states, especially in more rural and remote areas.

3. New England’s physical geography

Moreover, the physical geography of New England, characterized by its rural expanses and historic towns, poses challenges for the extensive pipeline construction required for natural gas, making it less economically feasible to switch from existing oil-based systems. This historical momentum has led to a continued preference for heating oil, further reinforced by the established local businesses and services that cater specifically to oil heating needs.

4. Homes in New England tend to be older than in other regions

In New England, the prevalence of older homes significantly influences the region’s heating fuel choices, leading to a greater reliance on heating oil over natural gas. This trend is rooted in the historical development and infrastructure of the area. Many of the homes in New England were built before the widespread availability and expansion of natural gas pipelines, which means that these older structures were originally designed to use heating oil, coal, or wood for warmth.

The infrastructure for heating oil, such as storage tanks and delivery systems, became well-established, making it a convenient and, for a long time, economically viable option for homeowners. Consequently, the transition to natural gas, which requires pipeline infrastructure that is expensive and complex to install, especially in densely built or remote areas, has been slower in these communities.

Additionally, the logistical challenges and regulatory hurdles associated with retrofitting older homes to accommodate natural gas heating contribute to the continued reliance on heating oil. Upgrading a home’s heating system to natural gas not only involves the physical connection to the pipeline but also potentially extensive and costly modifications inside the home, such as installing new heating units and ensuring compliance with current safety standards.

In contrast, maintaining or replacing an existing oil heating system is often seen as less disruptive and more cost-effective, particularly in areas where natural gas pipelines are not readily accessible. As a result, despite the potential for lower operating costs and cleaner burning with natural gas, the inertia of existing infrastructure and the upfront costs of switching fuels perpetuate the reliance on heating oil in New England’s older homes.

5. New England’s environmental concerns and regulation

Another aspect influencing New England’s preference for heating oil is the region’s environmental and regulatory landscape. In areas where natural gas pipelines could be expanded, there are often significant environmental concerns and regulatory hurdles that slow down or altogether halt such projects. Concerns about fracking, pipeline leaks, and the broader environmental impact of fossil fuel dependency make communities and regulators cautious about embracing natural gas. Consequently, while heating oil might not always offer the lowest operating costs, the combination of historical infrastructure, regulatory challenges, and conversion costs has made it a persistent choice for many households in the region, distinguishing New England’s energy profile from much of the U.S.

Heating oil companies in New England

Many heating oil companies in New England also provide propane services as well. Some examples of combined heating oil and propane companies include:

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