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The lonely, thankless job of heating the world in winter

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It’s almost here – the darkness and the icy death grip of winter. Some may not feel the full sting of it, if you live in sunny and warm climates, while other brave souls embrace it. Having had fingers so numb I couldn’t unlock a door, I tend to be not as thrilled, but in truth it makes no sense to go through life hating one of the four seasons just because it can be unpleasant.

Whether you like or loathe winter though, if your home must endure one you have to respect it. Winter can kill you. Very quickly.

Perhaps you’ve had a bad experience in the dead of winter and know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it is very sobering. Say your car breaks down or gets stuck some distance from other people. A simple event like this can be life-threatening, and at the very least, if not prepared for it, the situation will be extremely unpleasant.

Those of us in urban environments, which is most of us nowadays, don’t really think about this much because either help or shelter is never far away. That is simply a given, and a dead car on a side street is generally no more than an annoyance even at -25 degrees. We can see this readily when people pop out of cars on any given winter day with clothes that would no keep them alive for ten minutes or in footwear that couldn’t traverse more than a sidewalk’s width of snow.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how relentlessly we take for granted our heat sources. We can most easily see that phenomenon by thinking of other dangerous situations that we never forget. Imagine having a close call in traffic; say some driver blows a red light at high speed, and the only thing between you and oblivion was the fact that you happened to catch a glimpse of the idiot out of the corner of your eye in time. You will remember that split-second until the day you die, and you’ll tell the story to others for that long too.

Now imagine that some errant construction worker struck a natural gas pipeline that supplied any sort of decently sized city in the dead of winter. A single incident like that could catastrophically cut off the heat supply for tens of thousands of people, instantly. And as anyone who’s experienced -25 degree temperatures (or worse) knows, you would feel the absence of that heat in minutes, or even seconds.

Now consider how fossil fuels, all fossil fuels, are vilified relentlessly. The natural gas baby gets thrown out with the same bathwater that includes coal.

Does anyone think for a second about the safety or integrity or even the presence of those natural gas pipelines? On balance, is the average person more likely to be scornful of natural gas as a fossil fuel, or to be filled with gratitude at having one’s life prolonged in those long winter nights?

This coming winter, whenever you step outside and feel that icy blast on your face, give a thought to what made possible the heat you just stepped out of, and how incredibly fragile its existence really is. A million bad things could happen to any one of those pipelines, and your life may well depend on those things not happening, just as surely as it would be saved by glimpsing a speeding car at the right instant. And consider carefully everything you hear about how deadly fossil fuels are.

This article was originally posted at Public Energy Number One

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I have been through an ice storm in rural central Illinois. It was brutal. Tried to mop up some water on the floor in the kitchen, finally realized it was coming from a refrigerator ice cube line. Had to go to a motel for a few days. My corn stove let me run a generator but my corn stove wasn't up to heating that old three story uninsulated farmhouse. The natural gas steam heat was worthless without the electrical pump. The generator oil had to be heated by the corn stove before it would work. 

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