Many New Initiatives—Will Sales Increase?

Maine policymakers have undertaken a number of new initiatives to promote biomass heating, motivated largely out of concern for the future of our state’s forest products industry.
By Bill Bell | March 23, 2018

“There’s something good waiting down this road; I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.” (Runnin’ Down A Dream, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1989.) 

 As described in previous columns of mine, Maine policymakers have undertaken a number of new initiatives to promote biomass heating, motivated largely out of concern for the future of our state’s forest products industry. As result of paper and biomass power plant closings since 2010, economic activity directly related to biomass harvesting in the Pine Tree State is now less than half of what it was eight years ago. Profitable disposition of low-grade wood is posing serious challenges to landowners, sawmills, loggers and good forest management.

In response to attention and financial support generated by Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, a Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative as it relates to wood energy is now undergoing final review. For the first time, the complexities of creating and administering thermal renewable energy credits (RECs), as has been done in the state renewable energy portfolios in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, are set forth. The math is not easy. Great care must be taken in order to avoid increasing electricity costs for the very industry—paper mills—at the center of forestry discussions. These firms utilize the existing REC system to gain from the electricity that they generate in-house.
This wood energy report will have good things to say about wood pellets, in terms of both utilization of biomass and the price stability of pellet fuel as compared to oil, natural gas and propane. It will be challenging, however, to direct focus to a specific initiative creating incentives for heating conversion of public buildings, when the issue of biomass utilization is so much larger.

This report will soon be delivered to our legislature, which is about to adjourn. However, specific recommendations and actual legislative language will have to wait until 2019, when Maine will also have a new governor, who we hope will provide support and leadership.

A second and more modest opportunity being rolled out is the wood heating promotion being undertaken by the USFS-funded Maine State Wood Energy Assistance Team, with the unappealing acronym of ME SWEAT. This initiative will be modeled after that of the New Hampshire Wood Energy Team, and will bring pellet and chip industry members and third-party expertise together with public building administrators. This project has been officially launched by creation of its website:

The discerning website viewer will utilize the above website to access another site, which is intended to be a real shot in the arm for the pellet heat industry: Under the leadership of the Northern Forest Center, industry, government and nonprofit groups have been working with a creative advertising agency to design a campaign appealing to homeowners and building managers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and—as they become more of a market—Massachusetts. The campaign is notable in that it emphasizes healthy forestry and local employment, along with the thermostatically controlled convenience of “automated wood heat.” With catchy language and cool animation, homeowners (and readers of this article) are invited to “get stoked!” Go to the website!     
Other good things are happening as well. In response to this winter’s notable increase in fossil fuel prices, our association went back into six years of weekly price reports from our Governor’s Energy Office, and publicized the fact that more often than not, pellet prices per MMBtu are below the cost of natural gas, 75 percent the cost of oil, and half that of propane. A similar release was generated by the New Hampshire Wood Energy Council. Equipment retailers reported that this information was then picked up on social media.

 With unanimous votes in both House and Senate, Maine legislators recently approved continued participation in the Northeast’s Regional  Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nine-state, cap-and-invest compact that generates funds from power plants, and makes them available for “efficiency” energy uses and programs, including Maine’s incentives for  pellet boilers and stoves. Our governor, never a fan of alternative energy, allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

However, the most incisive comment on all these initiatives comes from the manager of one of our state’s pellet manufacturers: “What we really need most is another good, hard cold snap.”     

Author: Bill Bell
Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association