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Plentiful Corn Sparks New Hope for Lowering Home-heating Costs

By Thomas Rozwadowski

Keeping the home fires burning has taken on a slightly different meaning for Yana Hodkiewicz this winter.

And if the preceding sentence comes off a bit corny — well, that's because it should.

With bags of No. 2 yellow corn routinely scooped into the Amaizablaze Corn Cleaner inside her Green Bay home, Hodkiewicz is at the forefront of major advancements in safe and environmentally friendly home heating.

But for all the talk about alternative and renewable energy sources, it's only until those changes affect the heating bill that ears really begin to perk up.

"I went from $250 a month to $25 and $35 on my last two bills," Hodkiewicz said. "It's made a big difference for me."

At first, Hodkiewicz was simply a curious observer interested in alternative energy sources. But after committing to the Amaizablaze from a Tennessee-based manufacturer, she was told there weren't any dealers in the area.

That's where Hodkiewicz's entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Having recently sold a previous business, she decided to put her warehouse on Bay Beach Road to good use with her latest venture — Corn Stove Warehouse — setting her on the path to become Green Bay's resident "corn queen."

"At least from what I've seen, it's more of a rural phenomenon right now, because farmers have been paying big, big bucks to heat homes. They're on propane and it's through the roof," Hodkiewicz said. "And so they're growing all this corn and it's like, 'Why the hell are we doing this to ourselves?' "

Expanding the scope

It's the same progressive mindset that wood burning pioneer Mike Haefner adopted when he began American Energy Systems in 1973. With "corn burning in his blood" due to a farm upbringing, Haefner had a feeling something new and different was going to make a dent in the industry. So he "put his money where his mouth is."

In the years that followed — and with a move from South Dakota to a larger Hutchinson, Minn., space — Haefner's reach is expansive, with American Energy Systems considered to be one of the chief corn burning/bio-mass burning stove manufacturers in the world.

"There's a huge motivation because of savings. You can easily save 75 to 85 percent or more on heating costs," Haefner said. "People spend thousands on insulation in hopes of saving 10 percent. But here, you spend a couple grand and get 60 to 70 percent back on your investment."

While he's interested in multiple fuel sources, Haefner said he committed to corn about 23 years ago. It's only now because of rising fuel costs, the buzz surrounding ethanol, environmental concerns and small measures affecting the greater geopolitical picture that corn furnaces are creeping into everyday conversations.

"Our largest percentages were not sold to farmers, but were sold to bedroom communities," said Haefner, who sells through a dealer base of more than 350 resellers. "It's the urbanites, people on the fringes of the city. They're energy conscious, environmentally conscious, and above all, they're regular people that want to save a bunch of money."

John Katers has spent a lot of time researching renewable energy sources through his work as a consultant with Focus on Energy, a statewide initiative that helps residents and businesses manage rising energy costs while controlling 's demand for natural gas.

Though corn isn't a fuel source covered by the Focus on Energy program, Katers knows its pros and cons are having a substantial impact on the way people make daily decisions.

"In general, people are thinking more about sustainable approaches, and part of that is, 'Can we get resources from our local communities without sending dollars to other states or other countries, especially countries that don't seem to like us a whole lot?' " said Katers, also an associate professor of natural and applied science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

"All of our money is going out of state to secure heat. If you can keep that money circulating locally, that would provide a stronger local economy, and at least for Wisconsin, keep us somewhat insulated from other things going on worldwide."

Some labor required

For the most part, the biggest knock on corn is that it requires labor from the furnace owner. That means securing enough corn for daily maintenance — Hodkiewicz heats her house with a 50-pound bag a day, which she said could be delivered — and finding locations where corn is readily available.

That isn't difficult in Wisconsin, where Hodkiewicz said, "you could just knock on a farmer's door."

Also, while corn prices are stable on average, costs have been affected by ethanol plant demand, leading to a rise in the $3.40- to $4-a-bushel range, according to national reports.

"There definitely is a demand," Katers said. "But (heating with) corn does require some additional labor, because with natural gas, you're dealing with your thermostat and not really taking time out of your day."

For Haefner, extra effort translates into five minutes a day to empty and load more corn into the furnace, with an additional 15 minutes on the weekend for basic maintenance, polish and clean up. To obtain corn is a "little more work," with Haefner traveling once every two to three months to fill up several 55-gallon drums.

"To be honest, people are lazy, especially those of us in the baby boomer generation. We like things done for us," said Haefner, who said his heating costs are at $2 a day for a 4,200-square-foot home. "It's a lot easier to burn corn than to go out and chop wood, but it's more work than sitting on the couch and letting the thermostat do its thing."

Matt Krueger, who co-owns Wisconsin Corn Burner, LLC. in Stoughton, said for his customers, it's a dollars-and-cents decision. A corn furnace could run anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 (not including installation, when needed), but long-term savings while being able to keep your home at 72 degrees instead of 64 piques heavy interest.

"I think it's a matter of awareness and corn energy becoming more and more popular," Krueger said. "If people know more about it and can say, 'Oh, Joe's got one,' or do their own research on the Internet, it's going to be hard to ignore alternative sources."

Serious choices are coming

When Bob Walker helped develop the corn-burning Bixby MaxFire bio-mass stove, he did so hoping to eliminate questions about labor, time and added mess. Walker, CEO of Bixby Energy in Minneapolis, said the future for alternative energies looks promising.

"You have furnaces that not only use corn, but wood pellets, biomass pellets, waste energy …" he said. "Corn was the first product to look at because it's out there in plentiful supply. Ethanol plants are gobbling it up now, but whether it's agricultural waste, switchgrass, cranberry waste … there are so many things to think about for the future."

Walker said using traditional heating systems only to "be unhappy while sitting around the house with sweaters" doesn't have to be the only option for homeowners. Then there are subtle effects of corn-based heating, like Hodkiewicz noting how her furnace has "given me my living room back. My kids will sit in there and do their homework, whereas before, we all used to be crammed in the kitchen because it was the warmest spot."

In terms of widespread knowledge among the public, there's still work to be done. But Haefner, for one, thinks it's only a matter of time.

"I think in the next two to three years, the American public is going to be forced to make serious life changes," he said. "It could be corn or some other fuel … but people are going to have to do something, and they'll find it's very economical."

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