My ears are burning

Are corn stoves the answer to home heating?

Illustration by Dan Harris

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Biofuel is a topic that makes me cringe. As an alternative to environmentally degrading fossil fuel, biofuel—such as corn ethanol or biodiesel—has a lot going for it. Biofuel is a biomass, meaning it’s derived from recently living organisms and burns clean. But biofuel’s not-so-cool elements leave me struggling to form a foolproof opinion, necessary so that I might vet people who differ in their beliefs.

Before we get to biofuel’s evil side, let’s consider the good side by looking at corn stoves as an alternative way to heat a house. Corn stoves run off—surprise!—corn, although they’re capable of burning other biomass products, such as wheat, rye, cherry and olive pits and wood pellets. Oil, gas and coal (fossil fuels) take roughly 4 million years to form. Trees take 40 years to mature. Corn takes only four months to grow, making the vegetable a rapidly renewable resource.

SN&R won’t use a corn stove to heat the 19,000-square-foot building we’re renovating on Del Paso Boulevard because the appliance better suits smaller, residential spaces. But we found Dan Harris, who’s love-struck with his stove, which has acted as the primary heat source for his 1909 Victorian house for the past six years. The stove heats 2,200 square feet of living space in his Courtland residence. On really cold days in the Delta, Harris turns on a heat pump to suck heat out of the living room where the stove is located and dissipate warm air throughout the house.

“Unlike the combustion of wood and fossil fuels, the carbon dioxide produced during corn burning does not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” Harris explained, while wood stoves, on the other hand, produce these harmful gases and emit smoke and pollution. Corn produces minimal smoke exhaust, he added, and surpass the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean-air emission standards. One bonus: Leftover ash can be used as garden fertilizer.

Several years ago, a friend of Harris’ developed an interest in a zero-carbon footprint. “He’s the kind of person that if you had a $6 SMUD bill, he’d wonder why,” Harris said. The man leased a portion of his land to corn growers, and after hearing about Midwesterners using corn stoves, the industrious fellow bought some wholesale and then bragged to his friends about how efficiently they worked. Harris took the bait, installing a black cast-iron stove, which he later replaced with a mahogany-brown porcelain model that fit his house’s style. The appliance cost about $2,700. Before the corn stove, “Our house never had that warm, toasty feeling,” he said. Now, it does.

Harris buys bags of agricultural feed corn from a stove wholesaler who buys the produce directly from a farmer in town. He prefers this route because it supports local farmers and ensures that the corn has been run through a bean cleaner first, removing the kernel—the only part used for fuel—from husks and dust so it burns as clean as possible. Harris emphasized that he uses agricultural feed for his stove, meaning the maize would otherwise be used to feed cattle and chickens, not people.

Indeed, growing food for fuel has its foes. Critics argue that ethanol producers competing for the corn market have jacked up the price of corn, motivating farmers to devote more land to corn crops, reducing the amount of land for other crops, which makes other food stuff more scarce and expensive. In some parts of the world, ethanol production has already created a shortage of corn—a staple food in many Latin American countries. Finding land to grow corn for ethanol, or soybeans and oil palm trees for biodiesel, has led to massive deforestation worldwide and the displacement of indigenous people.

Critics also cry foul over a string of recent biofuel plant spills in the Midwest and Alabama. Veggie-oil spills are just as deadly on animal life as crude-oil spills (the glycerin byproduct of ethanol production depletes the oxygen content of water and suffocates fish). Another major complaint: Corn is an energy-intensive crop. Conventional farmers use natural gas-based fertilizers and petroleum-based pesticides during the growing process, and turning the plant into ethanol is usually powered by fossil fuels, leaving critics to argue that biofuel achieves a negative net-energy balance—more energy is wasted then gained.

“That’s where I have a problem with it,” Harris said, noting that his corn doesn’t need to be reconstituted. He throws the kernels right into the hopper, sits back and enjoys.