We are nearing the end of what is likely to be the warmest year on record. But it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and homes are relying on their furnaces, boilers, fireplaces, and heat pumps to remain comfortable—and safe.
Homes in the United States are heated by a variety of fuels. Most homes rely on natural gas for heat, but oil, propane, electricity, and wood are also common. Understanding why certain homes and areas use different fuel sources is a matter of geography. The interplay of who, what, and where is on full display in this map that shows the dominant fuel source for home heating by census tract. This analysis is based on data from the American Community Survey completed in 2021.
Immediately, you can notice distinct regions that are dominated by each fuel source. The Northeast and Alaska are reliant on oil, while much of the Southeast heats their homes with electricity. The Midwest is a battleground between propane and natural gas, and pockets of wood-reliant regions are more common toward the west coast.
A closer look also reveals how geography is a discipline of scales, and patterns change as you zoom in. At the city scale, a dichotomy emerges between rural areas and more densely populated regions. Regardless of the dominant fuel type of their surroundings, highly populated cities frequently exist as enclaves of natural gas customers.
Pipeline installation is costly and requires housing to exist to be most efficient. This makes it difficult for natural gas to be the primary fuel type in areas with few, distant houses that are already reliant on other fuels. But when housing is dense—such as in cities or suburbs—numerous homes and buildings can be served by a low number of lines. This economic factor drives much of the prevalence of natural gas use in major cities. Such a divide has caught the attention of political scientists, too: Despite many cities’ reliance on natural gas, those who dwell in urban areas—and who tend to vote differently than their rural counterparts—note a preference for alternative fuel sources.
Efforts to revamp urban fuel use are underway, but they will not come easily, cheaply, or quickly.