The Beauty of Local Wood Heat
The pace of change is really picking up when it comes to use and acceptance of wood pellets and chips for heat in the Northeast. And that’s a good thing, because the region has a voracious appetite for fossil fuel, consuming 84 percent of the home heating oil used in the U.S. It’s estimated that the Northern Forest region spends $6 billion per year on imported fossil fuel. Beyond concerns about cost, supply and the environment, depending on fossil fuel is a bad choice: 78 cents of every dollar spent on home heating oil leaves our local economy.
That’s why the Northern Forest Center has made advancing biomass heat a top priority and is working with a wide range of collaborators to catalyze the market for high-efficiency, low-emission wood pellet boilers for homes and small-scale commercial installations (ideal for businesses, nonprofits and housing facilities).
The center—a nonprofit organization working across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York—and many others believe we can build an energy economy that brings substantial economic benefits to rural communities, reduces dependence on heating oil, cuts net CO2-emissions over time, and supports healthy, working forests while protecting public health and forest sustainability.
When people switch to wood pellets, 100 percent of the money they would have spent on oil stays in the regional economy. Home and business owners save 40 to 50 percent on their fuel bills, and what they do spend buys pellets grown and produced in the region. Demand for pellets creates jobs in the pellet mills and further down the supply chain for loggers, foresters and truckers. The mills create an important market for lower grade wood, which helps forestland owners with the cost of stewarding their forests.
We’ve shown how biomass wood heat can benefit the region through the Model Neighborhood Project. Over the past two years, participants in the original Model Neighborhood Project in Berlin, N.H., have saved $120,000 and avoided adding 700 net tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The total positive economic impact of the project to date is more than $450,000. Participants in Berlin—and now also in Farmington and Wilton, Maine—have proven the new, high-efficiency boilers to be reliable, cost-efficient and easy to use. And they’re sharing their stories. They’ve hosted tours, welcomed media coverage and championed the systems to potential adopters.
More than a few things need to happen for new technology or systems to take hold. Some of the essentials for biomass heat include reliable retailers, qualified installers and technicians, pellet manufacturers, bulk delivery pellet suppliers, acceptance by real estate and insurance industries, attractive financing options and supportive public policy, including alternative energy rebates for new biomass installations.
More and more, these essentials are available in the northern New England, especially in northern New Hampshire and western Maine near the Model Neighborhood Projects. Two years ago, a high-efficiency residential pellet boiler was a rarity. Now, there are nearly 300 installed in Maine and New Hampshire.
Since September, Efficiency Maine has distributed over 120 rebates for residential pellet boiler installations, helping drive costs down and increase familiarity with these systems. This success is a model for how policy, industry and social connections can combine to drive the market. As demand has gone up, the average price of installed residential boilers in Maine has dropped by $3,000, a 17 percent decrease.
Moving to chip-based systems for larger installations, the state of Vermont has generously funded schools to shift from oil to biomass and now about 30 percent of Vermont schoolchildren attended wood-heated schools, and the average school has cut its fuel costs by over 50 percent.
In Colebrook, N.H., the center has been working with the town to research the feasibility of installing a biomass district heating system that could provide heat to buildings along Main Street and at some large facilities, including the hospital.
Regional Impact—A Triple Play
Each one of these installations is an important step toward realizing the vision of an energy economy that brings substantial economic benefits to rural communities, reduces dependence on heating oil, cuts net CO2 emissions over time, and supports healthy, working forests.
Wood heat is not new to the Northeast, but wood heat that burns at 85 percent efficiency through systems that are thermostat-driven—entirely automated or nearly so—is a game changer. It makes wood heat more convenient and efficient than ever before. With a cost per Btu that is significantly lower than oil, heat from wood is now in a position to compete against the dominance of oil in the region.
Author: Maura Adams
Program Director, Northern Forest Center