Expanding Wood Heat in New England

Last year’s closure of a number of Maine’s paper mills and biomass electric facilities has given rise to a number of initiatives designed to stem, and then reverse the tide. These initiatives are now being placed on the table. Which will succeed?
By Bill Bell | March 24, 2017

 “They would not listen; they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now…” (Starry Starry Night, Don McLean, 1971)

As previously outlined in this column, last year’s closure of a number of Maine’s paper mills and biomass electric facilities has given rise to a number of initiatives designed to stem, and then reverse the tide. These initiatives are now being placed on the table. Which will succeed?

First—what about homeowners? The nonprofit Northern Forest Center, serving northern New England and upstate New York, now acknowledges that there have been “significant investments in the modern wood heat economy, but consumer demand hasn’t yet responded in kind.” The center is therefore undertaking “a collective marketing effort” to generate such demand. Branding and creative materials are being developed to feed homeowners into a persuasive and informative website. Communities with favorable demographics (affluent and older folks) will be especially targeted with appeals to environmental and “heat local” considerations.

Perhaps even more helpful will be the recent study—commissioned by the NFC but coauthored by John Gunn, who, at times, is a sharp critic of biomass energy—that points out that heating with pellets from northern New England’s mills will immediately cut greenhouse gas emissions by over 50 percent when compared to heating with oil or natural gas. The NFC is working with environmental groups, particularly local chapters of the Nature Conservancy, to counteract generalist attacks on biomass energy such as the recent Chatham House “study.”

While converting homeowners to modern wood heat is one of the most important components to expansion of our Maine pellet fuels industry, it is also proving a very elusive target. Two years ago, the $5,000 Efficiency Maine incentive, supporting installation of a residential pellet boiler, was producing an average of one installation a day. This winter, despite the fact that the per-Btu price of heating oil now exceeds that of wood pellets, there are very few takers. In fact, the number of homeowners using the $500 incentive for installation of a pellet stove exceeds the pellet boiler installs.

Focus has shifted to larger-scale biomass heating projects. Key Maine legislators have joined in sponsorship of a $25 million biomass bond issue. Two-thirds of the amount would  promote combined-heat-and-power (CHP) biomass generation, with only a third of this amount to go toward thermal biomass boilers, and these would be in public buildings and commercial facilities. The top priority of Maine Biomass Study Commission, whose recommendations are currently being drafted into proposed legislation, is establishment of a renewable energy credit for thermal biomass, which, in neighboring New Hampshire, is benefiting larger users, not homeowners. The work of Maine’s Wood Energy Team, established with a U.S. Forest Service grant administered by the Maine Forest Service, will be directed toward converting schools and other public buildings, not residences, to modern wood heat. Again, this follows the example set by New Hampshire, where the NH Wood Energy Council notes that recent wood heat projects in schools, hospitals, and businesses generated $35 million in economic benefits to the state’s citizens and communities in 2015.

Maine’s shift in emphasis from homes to larger projects is, in part, a reflection of home economics versus capital investment. The concept of “eat local,” driving a boom in restaurants in Vermont and Maine, which source food from nearby farmers, works well with folks making a $40 dinner decision. When deciding on a $20,000 home heating system, “heat local” is a weightier undertaking. Homeowners are far more inclined to muddle through with an aging oil burner, hoping for another mild winter, than are schools, hospitals, and businesses taking a longer outlook.

The real driving force, however, is the need to maintain the infrastructure of Maine’s currently struggling forest economy. Loggers desperately need ongoing work. Sawmills need outlets for over 500,000 annual tons of chips and sawdust previously sold to the paper mills and biomass electric facilities that have closed their doors. CHP projects, or at least many large buildings, converting to biomass heating will have a far greater impact on the forest industry—Maine’s No. 2 economic driver, after tourism—than homeowners converting.

The proof of this shift is found not just among planners and politicians, but where it really counts: in the marketplace. Maine Energy Systems, generally recognized in Maine as the leader in residential pellet heating systems, is about to introduce  into New England a CHP system of its own, the OkeFEN cogen pellet boiler, which will provide electricity and heat to larger buildings.

Author: Bill Bell
 Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association