Wood Stove Decathlon: panelists talk heating with pellets

By Anna Simet | November 19, 2013

In some areas, pellet stoves are selling faster than wood stoves, and that’s for a few reasons, one of which is the complexity of cordwood.

At the Wood Stove Decathalon in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16-19, a panel of experts discussed growth of residential pellet heating, some pros and cons, as well its current role in U.S. renewable energy generation.

John Crouch, Pellet Fuels Institute director of public affairs, discussed the varying properties of cordwood and how pellets offer consumers a more uniform fuel. “There are differences between species [of cordwood]—hardwood and softwood—and even just species of hardwood alone, “Crouch said. “This piece of fuel even varies in moisture and density within itself. We know, for instance, you can move the pins on the moisture meter just a few inches and get a 2 to 3 percent difference in the same piece of fuel. That’s part of what makes the stove so challenging, is the fuel is infinitely variable.”

People began reconstituting sawdust for energy purposes around 20 years ago, he said, into a more predictable fuel—pellets.  

Panel speaker Richard Thomas of Courtwood Hardware, who has been active in the pellet industry since inception, has sold more pellet stoves than any other individual in the U.S., Crouch said.

Thomas said he has been heating his own home with pellets since 1988, and Courtwood has 10,000 active pellet stove customers. Being that one ton of pellets equals 2.8 barrels of oil, last year his company prevented 25,000 barrels of oil from being consumed in Maryland. “Nationally, we’re [the U.S.] using about 2 million tons of pellets per year, and that’s replacing about 5.6 million barrels of oil,” he said.

Thomas noted that appliance installation is simple and inexpensive, and pellet stoves are generally very safe and easy to use and operate. “You can put them in any area of your house where you want to be comfortable so you don’t have to raise the thermostat and temperature of your entire house. But we do have pellet boilers and furnaces that can heat a whole house, 3,000 square feet.”

There are many homeowners in Maryland who are spending three times more to heat their house with electricity than they would with pellets, Thomas added. “We are selling appliances than can heat homes very efficiently, actually ending up in savings as much as $400 per month.”

Pellets cost approximately $15.97 per MMBtu, compared to cordwood, which runs at about $13.33 per MMBtu, according to Thomas.

Following Thomas, Steven Faehner, American Wood Fibers vice president of industrial and bioenergy sales, touched on the company’s history in the pellet industry, which it has been involved in for about 10 years. “We’ve been in business since 1966, and have sold wood and other fibers as fuel long before it was biomass, way before it was famous or sexy,” he said.

American Wood Fibers processes about 500,000 tons of wood per year, according to Faehner, and has three pellet manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin, Virginia and Ohio.

Pellets are a very historic and stable product, Faehner emphasized, as the prices don’t fluctuate dramatically and have not varied much over the last 15 to 20 years. “We’re selling pellets for ten dollars less per ton that it was five years ago,” Thomas added.

Though about roughly 53 percent of renewable energy in America comes from biomass in general, Faehner said that isn’t commonly known. “We haven’t gotten the message out, and it’s not promoted enough. We displace an awful lot of fuel [oil].”

Faehner concluded with touching on sustainability issues, pointing out that there is too much caution when it comes to using biomass resources for energy in the U.S., which can have negative consequences, particularly when it comes to fighting forest fires. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “If you look at the numbers—growth verses harvest over the last 55 years—the statistics and resources we have, I don’t know that there’s a better argument [for biomass fuel].”