I don't know about your town, but here in Somerville, it's cold outside. As I write this, it's 43° F, so, naturally, I've got the heat turned up because I'm not from Mass. and can't take the chill. My house, and about 30% of other homes in Middlesex County, MA, is heated using heating oil that has to be trucked in – it's one of the most expensive and inefficiet methods of heating around.
This got me thinking: what do other homes use? Is there a geographic relationship? Because I'm curious, I made some interactive maps using Python and data from the US Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). Check them out below!
Do you see any relationships or patterns? Try finding your county, if you live in the US.
Map 1: Percent of households heated by heating oil, by county
This is a really interesting map. The Northeast and Alaska are basically the only two places where heating oil is still used, meaning that there probably isn't a significant relationship between heating oil use and income, since Alaska is a relatively poor area of the country, and New England is relatively rich. My other hypothesis is that New England keeps heating oil because many houses are old and haven't been upgraded to newer infrastructures and that other methods, like electricity or natural gas, are simply too expensive in Alaska. Either way, it's a cool map.
Map 2: Percent of households heated by natural gas, by county
Natural gas seems to be the predominant heating method across the Great Plains and most of the West, probably because it's inexpensive and long-range pipelines make it easier and cheaper to access in less-densely populated parts of the country. I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that many newer houses are being built with natural gas heating, so that may also have something to do with the trend.
Map 3: Percent of households heated by electricity, by county
Here's the South. I'm not sure how electric heating works or what its efficiency is like compared to natural gas or oil or other alternatives, but I'm going to guess that the effect we see in this map is a result of the fact that the South just doesn't get that cold. I bet that this heating element is part of an electric air-conditioning/heating system that most people use primarily for air-conditioning. If you're from Florida, Georgia, SC, or another state about which I have just generalized and I am completely off-base, let me know in the comments! (I'm from the Southwest - it's very different.)
Map 4: Percent of households heated by solar, by county
Interestingly, solar heating closely follows state boundaries: New Mexico has the highest rate of solar heat generation in the country (which isn't surprising - we have a lot of sun) but other states don't even come close, even in the West. What's up? New Mexico aggressively incentivizes solar heating and electricity generation, while other states, like Massachusetts, which has a very powerful utility lobby, water down their incentives. Of course, sunnier areas have a natural advantage in solar heat generation, but policy also plays a huge role in the growth of alternative energy sources.