Saving Maine from heating oil dependency

By Lisa Gibson | February 03, 2011

With its sparse population in comparison with other states around it, Maine lacks the natural gas infrastructure employed in most areas. Largely because of that reality, the state has a serious and detrimental dependence on heating oil.

“It’s a unique and huge dependency,” says William Strauss, president of Maine-based consulting firm FutureMetrics. Strauss’s most recent paper, How to Cure Maine’s Addiction on Heating Oil: A roadmap to avoiding economic disaster in Maine and other regional states, laments the fact that $720 million will leave the state in 2011, to buy 300 million gallons of heating oil for its households. About 78 percent of every dollar spent on heating oil leaves the state’s economy, and more than 75 percent of households use No. 2 heating oil. Furthermore, if that money stayed in the state’s economy, it would create 41,000 new jobs.

The best fuel to replace heating oil is forest biomass, Strauss said. “Maine and the other nearby states have the resources and the infrastructure to convert most homes from heating oil to clean renewable fuel from our forests,” he wrote. “This is not a pipe dream.” The state could be known as the Saudi Arabia of biomass, he added, as it is the most forested state in the union and sustainably harvests more than 16 million tons of wood from its forests each year.

Strauss’s study focuses only on converting household heating systems to wood fuel, but that conversion can be guided by the residential wood pellet-fueled boiler experiences in European countries that already extensively use them, such as Austria. “They’re so far ahead of us on this,” Strauss said. “No homes are built there anymore for fossil fuel use.” In 2006, the European Union used almost 62 million oil equivalent tons of woody biomass, tens of millions more than any other renewable sources, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biogas, according to the paper.

Pulp and paper has been Maine’s primary forest industry for more than a century, but with an anticipated decline in demand for paper in an increasingly electronic world, that supply chain and livelihood could dwindle. “It’s a transition that’s occurring,” Strauss said. “I think we’re going to see paper demand dramatically decrease.” But even in the face of that declining demand, the forest products sector can remain the mainstay of Maine’s manufacturing sector if value-added refined fuel gradually replaces some or all of the pulp production, Strauss wrote.

As current pellet production capacity in the state cannot support the volume needed to replace residential heating oil, more plants would be required, but there is certainly enough wood, he said.

The Northeast Biomass Thermal Working Group is diligently taking steps to contact policymakers in key states to get a strategy rolling that can incentivize the use of woody biomass. Policy paves the way for its use in the European countries that have adopted it extensively, as well as a willingness to pay a little more for the fuel in order to help transition from fossil fuels, Strauss said. “There should be some coherent energy policy that envisions a transition off this oil.”

The paper can be found on the FutureMetrics website.