Government Help and Hindrance

Maine Fuel Pellet Association Executive Director Bill Bell discusses advancements in Maine's fuel pellet industry, which is rapidly expanding, but government actions are slowing down potential momentum.
By Bill Bell | November 21, 2013

Maine Energy Systems owner Les Otten was recently seen on television with a huge smile on his face. Was he enjoying the success of his investment? Yes, but of a former investment.  In 2002, Otten was part of the ownership group that purchased the Boston Red Sox, who, two years later, won their first World Championship since 1918. While no longer an owner, he has remained close to the club and was on hand to celebrate their third World Series victory in the past 10 years. 

And the pellet fuel business in Maine? Still growing rapidly, thanks to the inherently great value of pellet heat. But it could be expanding even more rapidly, were it not for the ability of competing forces to tilt governmental actions in their favor. The foremost such force: inertia. 

As a case in point, in mid-September, Maine’s state energy agency Efficiency Maine rolled out its new, $7 million program, courtesy of Maine’s legislature and governor. It is designed to reduce Mainers’ heating costs via insulation and by installing new heating units, from heat pumps to geothermal wells. The program made $250,000 available in $5,000 rebates to homeowners installing high-quality pellet boilers. The 50 available slots were spoken for in 48 hours, and our folks now feel that we have demonstrated beyond doubt the public demand for our new technology.  

However, one trustee of Efficiency Maine quickly responded that this response showed that the demand is so great that incentives for pellet boilers are not necessary. Efficiency Maine’s CEO fell on the defensive from our overwhelming success, and warned that our industry—and consumers—should not be expecting another round of incentives, adding that there would not be a waiting list for potential customers hoping for any cancellations among the original fortunate 50.

Another case in point: The Efficiency Maine rebate program also provides a $250 rebate incentive for purchasers of U.S. EPA-approved pellet stoves. However, in order to qualify, the pellet stove must be installed by a person holding a solid fuels license, a requirement virtually unheard of in the stove world. Stove retailers are asking that Efficiency Maine replace this requirement with the widely acceptant standard of NFI (National Fireplace Institute) certification. 

One more case in point: Following up on legislation passed several years ago at the behest of the American Lung Association in Maine, our Department of Environmental Protection is finalizing rules for a wood stove swap-in program, whereby owners of pre-1988, high-emissions woodstoves used as the primary heating source can get a $450 credit toward a new, U.S. EPA-certified cordwood or pellet stove. If you’re in the Low Income Heating Program, you can get $750. The rules are being written, but there is at present no funding for the program. 

And finally, four years ago, as pellet heat was gaining a toehold of acceptance, Maine’s forward-looking commissioner of professional regulation persuaded legislators to substantially revise the makeup of the regulatory board governing fuels and heating, so that the oil heating industry no longer would dominate. However, the new Maine Fuel Board has been moving with the deliberate speed of cold oil. At the urging of the commissioner,  one year ago the board agreed to a year-long pilot program of somewhat more flexible installation standards for pellet boilers, and was also directed by law to update outmoded requirements regarding chimneys and solid fuel devices. Since then, the board has dropped the ball on making the latter changes, and, quite recently, refused to extend the pilot program. 

Our industry’s best bet up here remains the simple thrust of promoting our state’s locally produced fuel, which costs half the price of oil. “Heat Local” will be the theme of the upcoming Northeast Biomass Heating Expo 2014 in Portland. In the meantime, government giveth encouragement to our industry, but also sometimes taketh away. 

Author: Bill Bell
Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association
[email protected]