Thursday, December 09, 2010

'Pioneering in pellets' at $199 a ton | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

'Pioneering in pellets' at $199 a ton | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

A Jay businessman shakes up the market with below-cost prices as he tries to build a customer base across Maine.

By Tux
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Elizabeth Miller was waiting as a truck backed into her driveway Wednesday afternoon. On the truck's trailer were five tons of Maine-made wood pellets, produced in Athens this week and driven 65 miles from Jay.

Miller had been buying pellets from hardware stores, but these were selling for the cheapest price she'd ever seen.

"In this economy, I just couldn't turn it down," she said. "And the free delivery made a big difference to me."

Miller is among the latest customers of the Wood Pellet Warehouse in Jay. The company's owner, Steve Barker, is shaking up the state's wood pellet business this year by undercutting competitors and advertising aggressively. He's selling a ton of pellets for $199, cash or credit, and he'll even stack the 40-pound bags for the customer.

That price doesn't cover his costs, Barker acknowledges. His goal is to build a loyal customer base this year with discount prices and an extra measure of service. And he's willing to drive across much of Maine to do it, making the trip to Portland at least once a week. his count, he'll deliver 3,000 tons of wood pellets in 2010.

Barker said he started a price war in the spring. He saw pellets advertised in Greater Portland at $250 a ton, without delivery, and figured he could beat that.

"I started at $199 a ton last April," he said. "I look at it as pioneering in pellets."

Some of Barker's competitors in the Portland area question whether his business plan makes sense. They can't offer pellets for the price Barker is charging, they say, and don't intend to try.

Sales of pellet stoves -- and wood pellets -- exploded two years ago, when oil prices hit record highs. Activity stalled just as quickly after that, when the recession and an oil glut took hold.

But oil prices are climbing again, and so is interest in alternative heat. That may help Barker find a niche in a market that has had too many pellets and too few customers.

For now, at least, pellet burners such as Elizabeth Miller are happy to find bargains just as the weather turns cold. She took two tons from Barker on Wednesday.

"I'll be ordering more from him later in the winter, I imagine," she said.

Barker was a facilities manager for the G.H. Bass shoe company until it moved out of state in 2004. He wound up buying a warehouse in Jay and opening a recycling and redemption center. Recently, he made a connection between recycling and Maine's forest economy.

"My concept is, joining forces in Maine to get cheaper fuel," he said. "We have plenty of wood to heat with in Maine."

Barker's supplier is Maine Woods Pellet Co. in Athens, the largest of four pellet mills in the state. Retailers also sell pellets from Canada and other parts of the United States.

Wood pellets have subtle differences that invite debate and marketing. Heat output and ash content are variables that influence customer loyalty and dictate price. Among the most costly are Okanagan, made in British Columbia from 100 percent softwood sawdust. Barker sells some, at the request of a stove shop. They retail for $282 a ton.

Maine Woods pellets are a blend of sustainably harvested hardwood and softwood. Earlier this fall, Barker was buying a trailer load -- 26 tons -- nearly every day. Demand spiked after he began running newspaper ads in southern and central Maine.

"If you're reading this ad, we will deliver!!," the ad says.

That promise has put Barker and another driver on the road daily from Kittery to the Bangor area. After Barker finished at Miller's house, he was off to two other homes in Portland.

Around the block from Miller's house, Paris Farmers Union sells Maine Woods pellets for $199 a ton -- to customers who pick them up. With delivery, the cost is $219, although the crew will stack the bags.

Maine Woods is the store's best-selling brand. It sells two other Maine brands and one from Canada. Prices range from $229 to $289 a ton, delivered.

Pellets are only part of the store's business; it's not looking to expand sales with discount pellet prices. "We have our hands full with deliveries as it is," said Joel Fellows, the assistant manager.

Pellets also are a sideline for Bob Maurais at Southern Maine Renewable Fuels in Windham. He doesn't carry Maine Woods pellets, but sells the comparable Maine's Choice, produced in Strong.

He charges $229 per ton for cash and $235 for credit cards. He tacks on a $30 delivery fee, plus $1 per mile from his warehouse.

"I know what I need to get for a (ton) to make it profitable for us," he said.

Barker's ads have prompted many of Maurais' customers to call and ask about the $199 deal. He tells them he can't match that price.

"We stopped playing that game a long time ago," he said. "But I never begrudge anyone for starting a business. I wish him every success."

Barker's ability to influence the wood pellet market with a truck and a strong back helps illustrate that the industry in the U.S. -- unlike in Europe -- is very young. The time will come, suggested Bill Bell, executive director of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association, when bigger companies will begin delivering with greater efficiency.

That's starting to happen. Maine Energy Systems in Bethel, which sells automated wood pellet boilers, announced this week that it's building a bulk pellet delivery truck to service businesses, institutions and homes. The European design can unload a ton of pellets in four minutes.

But with most customers buying the fuel in bags to feed stoves and fireplace inserts, there's still room for entrepreneurs. Barker is benefiting, Bell said, by buying from a mill with its own wood supply and a lower cost of production. With Maine pellet mills running below capacity, it's a buyer's market.

"I think 'price war' is probably too strong a term, but there are some good deals for consumers," Bell said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New England sets electricity use records - Bangor Daily News

New England sets electricity use records - Bangor Daily News

HOLYOKE, Mass. — Despite the weak economy, electricity consumers in New England have set new records for power use.

ISO-New England, the Holyoke-based grid operator for the region, says peak demand hit record levels in May and September. The region also set an all-time record in electricity consumption for one month in July.

ISO-New England says July was the second-hottest July in New England since 1960 and New England’s all-time electricity consumption for one month was recorded that month at 13,385 gigawatt-hours.

The previous one-month consumption record was set in July 2006, with 13,365 gigawatt-hours of electricity used.

Energy consumption in June, July and August totaled 36,863 gigawatt-hours, ranking summer 2010 in third place behind summer 2005 and summer 2006.

Friday, October 08, 2010

UMaine tidal power research wins $1M grant


UMaine tidal power research wins $1M grant


The University of Maine's Tidal Power Initiative has won a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help determine the environmental impact protocols at Ocean Renewable Power Co.'s tidal turbine test site in Eastport.

A group of researchers and students headed up by engineering professor Michael "Mick" Peterson has been working with ORPC for more than two years and is researching the turbine's impact on fish and sea life in Cobscook Bay, according to a press release from UMaine. The results of the studies will be used to establish protocols for evaluating and monitoring other tidal energy projects in the area. The funding will also support testing the university's Maine Tidal Turbine in the laboratory and in the field, and evaluating a small-scale tidal energy site in the Bagaduce River, near Wiscasset. Work force development efforts in the area of renewable energy are also included in the $1 million grant.

The Maine Tidal Power Initiative is in its second year and has been awarded a total of $4 million in government and non-government funds, according to the release.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy

October 5, 2010

For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy


VINALHAVEN, Me. — Like nearly all of the residents on this island in Penobscot Bay, Art Lindgren and his wife, Cheryl, celebrated the arrival of three giant wind turbines late last year. That was before they were turned on.

“In the first 10 minutes, our jaws dropped to the ground,” Mr. Lindgren said. “Nobody in the area could believe it. They were so loud.”

Now, the Lindgrens, along with a dozen or so neighbors living less than a mile from the $15 million wind facility here, say the industrial whoosh-and-whoop of the 123-foot blades is making life in this otherwise tranquil corner of the island unbearable.

They are among a small but growing number of families and homeowners across the country who say they have learned the hard way that wind power — a clean alternative to electricity from fossil fuels — is not without emissions of its own.

Lawsuits and complaints about turbine noise, vibrations and subsequent lost property value have cropped up in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states.

In one case in DeKalb County, Ill., at least 38 families have sued to have 100 turbines removed from a wind farm there. A judge rejected a motion to dismiss the case in June.

Like the Lindgrens, many of the people complaining the loudest are reluctant converts to the antiwind movement.

“The quality of life that we came here for was quiet,” Mrs. Lindgren said. “You don’t live in a place where you have to take an hour-and-15-minute ferry ride to live next to an industrial park. And that’s where we are right now.”

The wind industry has long been dogged by a vocal minority bearing all manner of complaints about turbines, from routine claims that they ruin the look of pastoral landscapes to more elaborate allegations that they have direct physiological impacts like rapid heart beat, nausea and blurred vision caused by the ultra-low-frequency sound and vibrations from the machines.

For the most extreme claims, there is little independent backing.

Last year, the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, along with its Canadian counterpart, assembled a panel of doctors and acoustical professionals to examine the potential health impacts of wind turbine noise. In a paper published in December, the panel concluded that “there is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”

A separate study financed by the Energy Department concluded late last year that, in aggregate, property values were unaffected by nearby wind turbines.

Numerous studies also suggest that not everyone will be bothered by turbine noise, and that much depends on the context into which the noise is introduced. A previously quiet setting like Vinalhaven is more likely to produce irritated neighbors than, say, a mixed-use suburban setting where ambient noise is already the norm.

Of the 250 new wind farms that have come online in the United States over the last two years, about dozen or so have generated significant noise complaints, according to Jim Cummings, the founder of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, an online clearinghouse for information on sound-related environmental issues.

In the Vinalhaven case, an audio consultant hired by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection determined last month that the 4.5-megawatt facility was, at least on one evening in mid-July when Mr. Lindgren collected sound data, in excess of the state’s nighttime sound limits. The developer of the project, Fox Island Wind, has contested that finding, and negotiations with state regulators are continuing.

In the moonlit woods behind a neighbor’s property on a recent evening, Mr. Lindgren, a retired software engineer, clenched a small flashlight between his teeth and wrestled with a tangle of cables and audio recording equipment he uses to collect sound samples for filing complaints.

At times, the rustle of leaves was all that could be heard. But when the surface wind settled, a throbbing, vaguely jetlike sound cut through the nighttime air. “Right there,” Mr. Lindgren declared. “That would probably be out of compliance.”

Maine, along with many other states, puts a general limit on nighttime noise at 45 decibels — roughly equivalent to the sound of a humming refrigerator. A normal conversation is in the range of 50 to 60 decibels.

In almost all cases, it is not mechanical noise arising from the central gear box or nacelle of a turbine that residents react to, but rather the sound of the blades, which in modern turbines are mammoth appendages well over 100 feet long, as they slice through the air.

Turbine noise can be controlled by reducing the rotational speed of the blades. But the turbines on Vinalhaven already operate that way after 7 p.m., and George Baker, the chief executive of Fox Island Wind — a for-profit arm of the island’s electricity co-operative — said that turning the turbines down came at an economic cost.

“The more we do that, the higher goes the price of electricity on the island,” he said.

A common refrain among homeowners grappling with sound issues, however, is that they were not accurately informed about the noise ahead of time. “They told us we wouldn’t hear it, or that it would be masked by the sound of the wind blowing through the trees,” said Sally Wylie, a former schoolteacher down the road from the Lindgrens. “I feel duped.”

Similar conflicts are arising in Canada, Britain and other countries. An appeals court in Rennes, France, recently ordered an eight-turbine wind farm to shut down between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. so residents could get some sleep.

Richard R. James, an acoustic expert hired by residents of Vinalhaven to help them quantify the noise problem, said there was a simpler solution: do not put the turbines so close to where people live.

“It would seem to be time for the wind utility developers to rethink their plans for duplicating these errors and to focus on locating wind turbines in areas where there is a large buffer zone of about a mile and one-quarter between the turbines and people’s homes,” said Mr. James, the principal consultant with E-Coustic Solutions, based in Michigan.

Vinalhaven’s wind farm enjoys support among most residents, from ardent supporters of all clean energy to those who simply say the turbines have reduced their power bills. Deckhands running the ferry sport turbine pins on their hats, and bumper stickers seen on the island declare “Spin, Baby, Spin.”

“The majority of us like them,” said Jeannie Conway, who works at the island’s ferry office.

But that is cold comfort for Mrs. Lindgren and her neighbors, who say their corner of the island will never be the same.

“I remember the sound of silence so palpable, so merciless in its depths, that you could almost feel your heart stop in sympathy,” she said. “Now we are prisoners of sonic effluence. I grieve for the past.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 6, 2010

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the composition of wind turbine blades. They are typically made of fiberglass or some sort of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, not steel.