Monday, February 25, 2008

Adding alternative fuel to the fire

Bangor Daily News
February 23, 2008

When you’re paying more than $3,000 a year for heat, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect the house to be warm.

So when the Green family found themselves layering on the clothes even as the heating bills piled up, they decided to explore replacing the two propane units in their Bangor home with something more efficient and effective.

Two years later, the Greens are among the growing number of Maine families who have returned to wood, albeit in a more modern form.

David Green said heating with their new wood pellet stove costs two-thirds less than with propane. But more important, Green said, the wood heat makes their spacious home a lot more comfortable during these long Maine winters.

"From my perspective, I can’t think of why more people wouldn’t do it," Green said of the switch. "For us, we will break even in two years."

With heating oil prices consistently hovering around $3.20 to $3.40 a gallon, and propane prices equally high, more and more Maine homeowners are looking for other ways to keep their pipes from freezing without going broke in the process.

Sky-high oil and gas prices are driving a boom in sales of "alternative fuel" technologies that, when you get right down to it, are just modern twists on the old wood stoves still found in many New England homes. Dealers report brisk sales of stoves and furnaces that burn wood pellets, corn and even coal with comparable efficiency to the oil furnaces so common throughout Maine.

While energy experts point out that the best way to reduce heating costs is usually to invest in winterizing one’s home, the growing interest in wood pellets and other renewable resources could provide a welcome boost to Maine’s forestry and agriculture industries.

But the sudden growth of the alternative fuel industry in Maine has outpaced environmental regulations, not to mention the type of fuel delivery system that would be expected in this age of convenience.

"I personally think the solid-fuel option is the way to go," said Terry McAvoy, who sells corn stoves, corn fuel and wood pellets at Carmel Corn Co. "It’s just going to be a matter of making it as user-friendly as possible."

An attractive option

Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why alternative fuels are an attractive option these days.

Wood pellets currently cost between $200 and $250 a ton.

Heating oil would have to cost about $2.10 a gallon — which is less than it did a year ago — to get the same bang for the buck from a ton of wood pellets sold for $240 a ton and burned in a high-efficiency boiler, according to information provided by the state’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.

A cord of seasoned firewood — if one can be found in Maine these days — typically runs a homeowner more than $200 and as high as $300. Again, assuming the homeowner was using a clean-burning and efficient wood stove, heating oil would have to cost $2.10 to $2.20 a gallon to offer the same return on investment.

The same goes for coal, which at $2.70 a ton is equivalent to $2.40-a-gallon heating oil, according to figures provided by state officials.

With 17 million acres of forests, Maine hopes to capitalize on growing interest in wood-based alternative fuels.

Ian Burnes, deputy director of policy and planning with the Office of Energy Independence and Security, said replacing 10 percent of the state’s oil consumption with homegrown wood pellets would produce $350 million in economic activity and generate up to 3,700 jobs.

Burnes acknowledges that Maine’s alternative fuels industry as a whole is still young and developing. So the state is looking at ways to help the industry grow as well as make it a more convenient option for homeowners, Burnes said.

"It is not a fully matured fuel source at this point," Burnes said. "But there are a lot of people out there using [wood pellets], and they are saving money."

Corinth Wood Pellets, which began production last year, is one of the highest-profile success stories.

The company, which employs about 20 workers, makes its pellets from leftover wood products from Maine sawmills. Owner Ken Eldridge was reluctant to release figures but acknowledged the facility is not up to full production. Even so, business is growing steadily, and Eldridge said he receives new calls every day from people looking to buy or sell pellets.

Corinth Wood Pellets originally planned to sell much of its product in Europe, where the pellet industry is well-established.

"We decided to keep our product right here," Eldridge said. "We can sell everything we make right here" in New England.

The rush to get away from high-priced oil has even created demand for America’s other major fossil fuel: coal.

Jon Glidden of Glidden Services in Millinocket said most of his customers so far have been looking to replace an old wood stove with a coal-fired stoker stove. But Glidden said he is seeing more interest in the newest generation of large coal-fired furnaces.

Glidden said the anthracite coal he sells is a lot cleaner than the dusty coal of olden days. It also burns almost as cleanly as wood but leaves no ash to clean up. And unlike wood pellets, moisture won’t ruin coal, Glidden said.

Asked if he thought coal would ever catch on again in Maine so far from the coal fields to the south and west, Glidden responded: "We’re a lot farther from the oil fields. And the U.S. is kind of the Saudi Arabia of coal."

Not for everyone

Before you go plopping down $6,000 on a new wood pellet or coal stove, there are a few important things to consider.

Switching to these alternative fuels has drawbacks, especially when it comes to convenience. And even proponents of these fuels warn that they are not for everyone.

Heating oil, propane and natural gas are virtually work-free, except when it comes to writing the check. Homeowners either receive automatic deliveries per their contract or schedule deliveries. In most cases, the homeowner doesn’t even need to be around when the oil truck arrives.

Then it’s just a matter of adjusting the thermostat and making sure the next delivery comes before the tank runs dry.

Heating with wood pellets, corn or coal takes constant effort — some would even say work.

Without access to a widespread delivery system, most pellet users must keep themselves supplied with fuel. That typically means loading up the trunk or pickup with 40-pound bags of fuel and then schlepping the pellets, kernels or coal into the basement. Many users buy their fuel a ton at a time.

For larger units, the fuel is then loaded into the hopper, which must be refilled periodically. Wood pellet and corn burners also contain ash receptacles that must be emptied from time to time.

McAvoy, who runs Carmel Corn Co., said that in his experience, many first-time buyers don’t realize how much of a lifestyle adjustment is entailed in weaning themselves off oil.

McAvoy was surprised two years ago when he began selling stoves capable of burning wood pellets and corn that the fuel delivery system was not in place. He also had problems finding clean, quality fuel at first.

McAvoy is a strong believer in the future of alternative fuels in Maine, especially corn. But he also wants to make sure the homeowners who call him looking to replace or supplement their oil burners understand the work involved with corn and wood pellets.

For those willing to put in a little work, the cost savings will be worth it, he said. But not everyone is willing — or able — to regularly haul and dump dozens of 40-pound bags of corn into the house.

"It’s going to take a certain amount of participation on the user’s part, and that is not what people are used to," he added. "Turning up the thermostat and cutting a check is the norm."

Charles Russell invested in a corn stove for his Carmel house, not necessarily to replace heating oil but instead to reduce his reliance on his thirsty oil furnace. And so far this winter, Russell has gone through half as much oil as this time last year.

Russell said he likes the idea of buying locally grown fuel. The corn that Russell buys from McAvoy is grown by a farmer in Fryeburg.

Russell said it’s all about making stove maintenance a part of your daily routine.

"You have to change your whole way of thinking," he said. "It’s one little step at a time."

But according to Burnes of the state Office of Energy Independence and Security, most analysts insist that improved weatherization is often the most cost-effective way for homeowners to reduce their heating bills.

Over 10 years, many homeowners can save $3 for every $1 spent on winterization, Burnes said.

"There is no kind of fuel system that comes even close to that," he said.

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