The Word on the Heat

With every new installation it helps guide to success, the Northern Forest Center is demonstrating that automated wood heat is a stable, affordable option that benefits both the environment and the local economy.
By Patrick C. Miller | March 20, 2018

The saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees aptly describes the challenge of encouraging more people to use automated, high-efficiency wood heating technology in the forested areas of the northeastern U.S.

Surrounded by forests containing a vast source of renewable fuel with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost local economies and help  maintain healthy forests, most homeowners instead rely on fuel oil—much of it imported—to meet their heating needs. Studies have shown that wood fuel could provide up to 30 percent of heating needs in some areas of the Northeast. However, wood currently meets just 1 percent of the region’s home, commercial and institutional heating needs. “Our single biggest barrier to increased sales and increased market penetration for wood pellet heating is that people just don’t understand that it’s an option,” says Andy Boutin, who founded Pellergy LLC in 2005, out of a desire to use wood rather than oil to heat his home. Located in Montpellier, Vermont, Pellergy sells residential, commercial and industrial wood pellet boilers and wood pellet storage and transportation systems.

The problem, as Boutin explains it, has to do with how home heating systems are sold, and how homeowners perceive home heating in general. Although a heating system represents one of the largest purchases a homeowner will ever make, and can be in operation for seven or eight months of a year, most people are unaware that automated wood heat is an option. “Given that level of purchase, the understanding of what your options are and what is available is incredibly lacking,” Boutin says. “Most of the purchase decisions are made by the plumbing and heating contractor that’s servicing your equipment, or someone you’ve called because your equipment isn’t working.

“It’s a very interesting and complex buying issue,” Boutin continues. “You need to market to the homeowner from a demand perspective. From a supply perspective, you also need to have these plumbing and heating contractors know that this is a viable and reliable option as well. That word is just not out there.”

Northern Forest Center
Fortunately, one of the primary goals of the Northern Forest Center—which operates in the states of New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont—is to educate and assist homeowners, businesses and institutions on the advantages of automated wood heat. Pellergy is one of many businesses that works with the center to promote automated wood heating. “People are accustomed to cord wood and some pellet stoves, but heating with automated, high-efficiency wood pellet boilers is really uncommon, and that’s what we’re trying to change,” says Maura Adams, NFC program director. “It’s a really fantastic option for people who are concerned about their local economy and who want to do something environmentally responsible.”

The NFC was founded 20 years ago in response to conditions in the northern forest states where patterns of land ownership were changing dramatically. Rather than large industrial paper companies owning big tracts of forested land, it was being broken up into smaller private holdings. “With that came a lot of questions about future land use and what that economy was going to look like,” Adams notes. “We’ve seen a lot of closures of pulp and paper mills over the past couple decades. That’s really challenging the economic norm in the region, which means we have to find other opportunities for communities. We also help them find diverse and sustainable uses of the forest economy.”

In addition to the NFC’s modern wood heating program, it also runs programs in wood products innovation; locally owned and managed community forests, tourism and outdoor recreation; tax credit financing to support forest-based economy projects; regional strategies advocating for forest communities at the state and federal levels; a “Way of the Woods” mobile museum; and the Clear Water Carbon Fund, which supports forested watersheds and increased carbon storage.

One of the first challenges the NFC faced in getting individual homeowners and organizations to consider automated wood heating as an option was to provide enough examples of the technology in action across the four-state region—nearby locations where people could go to experience the systems firsthand. “We now have more than 150 great stories and people to turn to when we’re trying to pitch this technology,” Adams says. Maine leads the way with 59 automated wood pellet heating systems. New Hampshire has 50, Vermont 40 and New York seven. In total, 115 systems are residential installations and 42 are in businesses, schools and other institutions.

Happy Heating with Wood
Julie Raboin, owner of a 100-year-old home in Newport, Vermont, was one of those who decided to switch to automated wood pellet heating. She had the system installed in December 2016. “I saw an ad in my local newspaper about the opportunity to receive significant incentives for purchasing an automated wood pellet system,” she says.  “I checked out the Northern Forest Center’s website, started researching wood pellet systems, and decided it might be the right move for me.”

Raboin worked with the NFC to find vendors—Maine Energy Systems and OkoFEN Wood Pellet Boilers—and a contractor, Cutting Edge Energy in Burke, Vermont—to do the installation. The center also helped her complete the paperwork for an Efficiency Vermont green energy loan. She recalls the day the oil tank and burner were removed from her home, and sneaking down to the basement to see the progress of the work. “From the first time the boiler fired up and the faint smell of wood filled the house, I knew I'd made the right decision,” Raboin says, while describing her experience. “I love having a brand new, reliable heat source that's energy efficient and uses fuel that supports the local economy. My family is more comfortable in our home during the winter, as I'm not quite as stingy with the thermostat anymore. My heating bill has gone down significantly. I also purchased a new hot water tank powered by the pellet boiler, and the hot water supply is so much more plentiful. No more getting up early to sneak a shower before the kids get up!”

David Benckendorf, a retired lawyer from Illinois, moved to Berlin, Vermont, six and a half years ago when his wife accepted a job there. He learned about an NFC automated wood heat pilot project in the town and, with an attorney’s zeal, began gathering information, much of it supplied by the NFC. Environmental issues were important to the Benckendorfs, which also influenced their decision to convert to wood heat. “When we first moved here, oil was expensive and getting more so,” Benckendorf remembers. “Heating with wood pellets was a new concept and we were a blank slate. The incentives and grants under the pilot project made it a very affordable process. When I looked outside, I saw a million acres of trees and not one oil derrick. Which one do I want to heat with?”
After six years, Benckendorf says the couple’s experience with an automated wood heating system has been nothing but positive and he would unequivocally recommend it to others. “I would suggest that anyone considering it do what I did: Contact an accountant and crunch the numbers,” he says. “It’s still cheaper than oil, even after oil prices have dropped.”

Based on his experience, Boutin is not surprised when he hears those who have experienced automated wood pellet heating sing its praises. “I’ve heard them say, ‘I love wood heat; I love the way it feels,’ which is kind of ironic because these systems don’t provide heat that’s much different than a fossil fuel system. What that really speaks to is the overall satisfaction people are getting from heating with a local renewable and sustainable fuel.”

In fact, one of the technology’s attractions is the ability to integrate it with existing fossil-fuel-based heating systems, whether it’s forced air or hydronic. “It is just like their fossil fuel system—it’s thermostatically controlled and it’s automated,” he explains. “They don’t have to stoke a fire. They don’t have to worry about lighting a fire and keeping it going. As much as you talk to people and they talk to others who have these systems, I think it still surprises a lot of folks that—here they are—heating their entire home with wood.”

Getting the Word Out
Despite such success stories, Adams knew automated wood heating wasn’t getting a broad enough level of exposure to make a significant impact. She believed there was a need for more collaboration across the entire wood heating industry to increase wider public awareness of the technology. This realization led to a recently launched NFC marketing campaign that encourages people to consider automated wood heating as an option. A website called not only provides a wealth of information on wood heating and links to experts, wood pellet suppliers, heating system vendors and contractors, but also gives testimonials from individuals and organizations that have seen the benefits of the technology.

“We were able to get a whole bunch of stakeholders together to think about how to talk about this technology. How can we work together to push the technology as a category instead of individual brands?” Adams asks. “People had been calling it advanced wood heat, or modern wood heat, or biomass heat. They weren’t using the same terminology, or doing any comprehensive generic marketing for automated wood heat as its own category. People might hear about one brand or another, but they weren’t hearing that this, in general, was a heating option.”

Boutin sees the value of the NFC’s marketing campaign. “Having programs like this to educate individual homeowners and that’s also a resource for home heating contractors who can look at this and see the options, it’s really incredibly important to the industry,” he says.

To Adams, the NFC’s automated wood heat program extends beyond providing homes, businesses and schools with a reliable source of heat from an environmentally friendly, renewable fuel source. It’s also about maintaining the forests and the communities dependent upon them. “I think people appreciate that we have a unique perspective on economic development, that we are looking at thriving communities and how to help communities benefit from the forest industry as much as we’re trying to help companies and help sustain good forest stewardship,” she says. “It’s that combination of economics and communities and the environment that we’re practicing all the time. It allows us to reach a broader sector of stakeholders.”

Boutin agrees, and notes the impact of diminishing wood markets as more and more paper mills and saw mills close in the Northeast. Although it might seem paradoxical, he says, “We risk the loss of forests without a robust forest economy. The wood energy sector is important to the local economy and—even more so—to forest health and forest management practices where landowners have plans in place to help manage both the health and the value of their forested lands.

“Without a market for low-grade woods,” he adds, “it becomes a very expensive proposition to maintain a forest management plan. We risk having these lands become more valuable for development.”

Adams says the NFC has a $2.8 million economic impact on the four-state region. It has created 4,850 jobs, helped conserve 255,562 acres of forest and secured and leveraged $189 million in projects in the past 11 years that benefit communities and forest stewardship. She’s looking for new ways to have an even larger impact. “We’re trying to figure out how to create the conditions for younger people to move up the Northern Forest and live there,” Adams explains. “If you’re missing that really important demographic of people who are going to be raising families and working to support the elderly population, the whole region is in real trouble.”

Part of the equation is convincing those living in a region of the country that uses 34 percent of the nation’s heating oil to make the switch to automated wood heat, a move that would have a significant positive impact on the economy and environment. Raboin is doing her part, one visitor at a time. “When anyone new comes to my house, the tour always leads to the basement,” she says. “I tell my guests all about my pellet boiler and how much I love it! It’s an investment, but it’s one you won’t regret.”

Author: Patrick C.  Miller
Staff Writer, Pellet Mill Magazine