Small World, Small Industry

The modern wood heat industry in the U.S. is made of an interconnected network of believers, working in cohesion, tirelessly advocating and working to grow the market, one installation at a time.
By Anna Simet | October 31, 2018

When making discoveries that strike us as coincidental or against the odds—perhaps two people knowing the same individual through completely differently means—we often exclaim what a small world it is. By this, we don’t actually mean the world is small in size, but rather, that it is amazingly interconnected.

To say this was the case for this issue—dedicated to on-site and distributed energy projects—would be an understatement. I’ll explain, though I’m sure many of you in the wood energy segment of the industry already know what I’m talking about.

For quite a while, I have been interested in writing a story on the Windham Wood Heat Initiative in Windham County, Vermont. What better way to use money from the closure of a nuclear power plant then to help fund clean energy projects that benefit the local economy? To date, the initiative has helped dozens of schools, municipal buildings and nonprofits determine if modern wood heat is right for them, and has moved nine projects forward. Both women I interviewed—Windham Regional Commission’s Marion Major and the Northern Forest Center’s Maura Adams—mentioned semidry chips and the benefits of using them. Though only one WWHI project is using them so far, they said they would like to see many more do so. The main challenge, however, is that there is currently only one supplier: Froling Energy. Coincidentally, Senior Writer Ron Kotrba had already interviewed owner Mark Froling and Jim Van Valkenburgh, vice president of business development and sales, to write a feature article on the company’s work in building out the modern wood heat market in the Northeast. In “The Only Game in Town,” on page 14, Kotrba goes into detail about the company’s evolution and development of its precision dry chips.

Froling told Kotrba that his company, which has completed upward of 180 installations over the past decade, actually hopes for more competition when it comes to dry chips.  “We need competitors in order to build up markets,” he says. “You can’t do it all alone…if there is only one supplier of PDCs, the market is not really seen as being very robust.” Kotrba also mentions that Froling used to work for New England Wood Pellet, which was owned by Steve Walker at the time. Coincidentally, that was the first pellet plant that I ever visited—roughly eight or nine years ago—and Walker gave the tour.

Finally, upon reading our final feature, “Sustainable Sours,” by Staff Writer Patrick Miller, I realized the brewery, which uses pellets to power its beer-making process via a unique setup consisting of pellet burners fitted onto steam oil boilers, is not only also in Vermont, but in the same town as four of the WWHI installations, and the owners drive home the same points about utilizing local wood heat.

All of this said, I think this paints a pretty accurate picture of the budding modern wood heat industry here in the U.S.—interconnected believers, working in cohesion, tirelessly advocating and working to grow the market, one installation at a time.

Author: Anna Simet