Pondering Pellets

By John Crouch | April 28, 2011

“Can you tell me about pellet stoves?” asks the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Oh dear,” I think, “another one of those calls.” It is another mainstream magazine writer who works at a glossy “shelter magazine” (a consumer magazine that focuses on gardens and homes). The writer is probably young, living downtown in an apartment or condo (heated by natural gas), very urban, and has clearly never ever heard of wood pellets.

You see, for years I’ve worked for the trade association that represents the pellet appliance manufacturers, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, and more recently, I now split my time between HPBA and the Pellet Fuels Institute, the association for pellet fuel manufacturers, so I often get to help with these kinds of calls. There have been fewer of them over the past two years because consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about pellet fuel and pellet stoves, but inevitably, the next energy crisis will bring a bevy of these questions. 

“Sure, I can help you with pellet stoves,” I reply enthusiastically. 

These calls tend to come from magazine writers who have just come off a story on refrigerators or bath fixtures, and have been assigned to cover the latest trends in fireplaces and other hearth products. They are often good writers and fast learners, but they usually have little or no experience with the day-to-day costs of heating a typical 20- or 40-year-old home. They typically live in New York City and hear or read about fuel oil, but usually the stark difference between $2 a gallon and $4 a gallon for oil is something they’ve had no personal experience with yet. (If it can’t be answered by Google quickly, it’s hard to understand.)

So I dive into the world of pellets with them, starting with the basics: why the fuel is so clean and what makes it a renewable fuel. Since I work a great deal on wood burning and air quality issues in the Western states, I often talk about how clean-burning pellet appliances are. If I detect that they are interested, I’ll take them a little deeper into the subject: how pellets have been used for more than 20 years in the U.S., but Europe has moved far ahead of us in pellet appliance usage and fuel delivery systems.

Many readers of this magazine have been in the pellet fuel business for years and have fielded these types of calls as well. We are all “geeks” on this subject, and, have to be careful not to say too much and confuse these writers.  One issue I hope we all cover with these calls is that most pellets in the U.S. and Canada come from wood fiber that is a byproduct of other wood manufacturing or from trees that have either been killed by insects or are in danger of being killed if they are not thinned. (We always have to be careful about this last issue, since many folks in the East have no idea how incredibly overgrown and/or dying our Western forests are.)

For me, the best aspect of these calls, as frustrating as they can be, is the basic reminder that there are still many people who don’t know much, or anything, about wood pellets, and that we have a responsibility to never stop talking about this “new” fuel to anyone who will listen. Just because some of us have been talking and thinking about this for 20 years, doesn’t mean it isn’t still news to much of the population in both the U.S. and Canada. There are still many people who may not be ready for many of the other complex issues we would love to explain to the press, but they may be interested in an alternative or secondary source of heat during the winter.

We also can’t talk about how domestic supply and demand for wood pellets are always going to be mismatched and inherently unbalanced (these questions surface every three or four years when there is a so-called shortage in fuel supply). But that is a topic for my next column.

Author: John Crouch
Director of Public Affairs,
Pellet Fuels Institute