Even In 2019, A Faithful Few Still Heat Their Homes With Coal Nearly 130,000 homes in the U.S. still burn coal for heat. Despite decades of decline and concerns about climate change, companies in the coal home-heating business are optimistic about the future.

For The Few Who Heat Homes With Coal, It's Still King

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In 1940, more than half of U.S. homes burned coal for heat. It was a big business and such a large part of the culture that a coal company even sponsored a popular radio drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Today Blue Coal brings you The Shadow's latest adventure - the "Bride Of Death."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But after decades of decline, only around 130,000 homes use coal for heat today. Half are in Pennsylvania. NPR's Jeff Brady reports the state's coal industry has a plan to attract a few more customers.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: A recent convert to heating with coal is John Ord. Every few weeks, he stops by a local hardware store in northeastern Pennsylvania to buy his coal.

JOHN ORD: This is the whole glamorous part right here.

BRADY: He loads 10 bags into the back of his white station wagon. It costs Ord less than $60. And he says that'll keep his house toasty for a couple of weeks in winter. At Ord's house, he shows off his new coal stove. It burns 24 hours a day this time of year. On the back, he loads a hopper.

ORD: You'll take the lid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAG RUSTLING)

BRADY: He lifts the 40-pound bag chest high and empties it to feed the stove for another few days. It's more work than just setting a thermostat. But Ord says this is less work than the wood stove he used to have.

ORD: Between cutting it, stacking it, letting it season, moving it into the space where you need to access it and then loading the stove.

BRADY: Ord also likes the constant heat his coal stove gives off. And he says it's cheaper than oil and electric. The coal he uses is different from what's burned in most power plants. Northeastern Pennsylvania is very proud of its anthracite coal, which is shinier and harder than you might expect. Ord says it burns cleaner, too. He heads outside to show me.

ORD: That's what you got coming out of the chimney. You can't even tell.

BRADY: OK, so no smoke or anything.

ORD: No smoke at all. There's no smell to it.

BRADY: But burning anthracite coal does emit more carbon dioxide per unit of heat than just about any other fuel. That makes it a contributor to climate change. Ord bought his stove from a company called Leisure Line. It has a small factory in Berwick, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELDER BUZZING)

BRADY: Co-owner Matt Atkinson fires up a welder to show how the stoves are built. He and a business partner bought the company a decade ago and says they sell 500 to 600 coal stoves in a typical year. Asked about climate change, Atkinson says the anthracite home-heating business is so small that it's not a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

MATT ATKINSON: If you want to look at the major CO2 producers in the world, it's not us (laughter). And even if we quadrupled our current sales, it still wouldn't be a problem.

BRADY: Increasing sales is a goal. The local anthracite coal industry plans a marketing campaign to boost its image.

ATKINSON: It's mostly about growing market share within the home-heating industry.

BRADY: He hopes to attract a new generation of customers who want to save money on heat. In Reading, Pa., Kelly Brown welcomes the campaign. Her family's business has sold coal for nearly a century and is one of the few to survive the industry's decline.

KELLY BROWN: In this general area, there was probably about 50 coal companies. Slowly, one by one, they started closing up. I think we're the only one in Berks County anymore since - for the last 10 years.

BRADY: Brown says maybe a marketing campaign will turn the industry around. And maybe they'll take a cue from some of those old radio jingles like this one, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Blue Coal's dependable - can't be beat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For even burning...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Steady heat.

BRADY: Jeff Brady, NPR News

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Just pick up the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Number please.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Tell your Blue Coal man...

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