Getting Green Heat to Main Street

In the Northern Forest region of New Hampshire and the western foothills of Maine, the Northern Forest Center's Model Neighborhood Project is helping residents switch from fuel oil to wood pellet boilers and fostering growth in the pellet industry.
By Chris Hanson | December 17, 2013

In the Northern Forest region of New Hampshire and the western foothills of Maine, the Northern Forest Center’s Model Neighborhood Project is helping residents switch from fuel oil to wood pellet boilers and fostering growth in the pellet industry. 

The project began as a collaboration between the Northern Forest Center and Maine Energy Systems. “We were hearing there needed to be more places for people to sell and use low-grade wood in order to make forestry more viable,” says Maura Adams, program director at Northern Forest Center. “So we had been thinking about pellets and wood heat and ended up talking to Maine Energy Systems about an idea they’ve been developing on incentivizing residential wood pellet boiler purchase and installation. The two ideas kind of fused as we figured out that creating this demonstration project was needed to bring attention to these systems and show how valuable they are.” 

Berlin, N.H., was selected for the first project because of its forest product legacy, the Berlin BetterBuildings program and the economic hardships facing the city after a paper mill closure, Adams says. By teaming up with BetterBuildings, Northern Forest’s project was able to make a larger impact by combining fuel switching with energy efficiency improvements. 

Instead of large heating projects, the Berlin program focuses primarily on household systems, while including two affordable housing units and a community arts center.  Adams says by including the three larger projects, the program demonstrates greater economic impact and serves as a more comprehensive community model. “For the residential part, as a condition of participation, they open their houses to tours. That’s kind of the point of the project,” Adams explains. “People need to see these systems at work, to see what they look like and understand they’re not traditional wood stoves, they’re not traditional pellet stoves, but these are very, very modern sophisticated systems that can be a direct replacement for oil boilers.”  

By the end of the year, Berlin witnessed the installation of 40 pellet boilers and now serves as a model for surrounding communities. The Forest Center and the Western Maine Community Action agency launched a second Model Neighborhood Project in June at Farmington and Wilton, Maine, roughly 80 miles east of Berlin. A third project is in its inception west of Berlin in Vermont. The future projects will include multiple vendors to create a more competitive market place, Adams adds. 

Delivering the Fuel
For pellet producers and equipment providers such as Geneva Wood Fuels and Maine Energy Systems, the Berlin project has helped validate pellet heating technology and provide opportunities to participate in the supply chain. 

Geneva Wood Fuels has been involved since the inception of the Berlin Neighborhood Project, says Jonathan Kahn, president, when MES approached the company to help secure a pellet supply. The wood pellets produced by Geneva at its Strong, Maine, facility are shipped by MES to its distribution point in Bethel, Maine, using converted cement trailers that carry 33 tons of fuel. The distribution center is comprised of 250-ton silos and a shaker system that cleans the pellets by removing any sawdust or particles. The separated sawdust is then put in a separate holding silo and returned to a mill to be repelletized.  

From Bethel, MES uses its bulk delivery operation to deliver to customers in the Berlin area. MES employs three pneumatic trucks that were built at Trans-Tech Industries in Brewer, Maine. The European-style trucks, designed by Austria-based Tropper Maschinen und Anlagen GmbH, employ a specialized aeration chamber to deliver pellets utilizing a moving air stream. “They basically float all the way from the truck into a bag that’s specially designed to breathe,” says Les Otten, co-founder of Maine Energy Systems. “So the pellet goes in, the air breathes out of the side of the bag without any dust. The only thing the home owner is left with after delivery is a faint smell of pine or hardwood in the storage area.” By using flowing air instead of mechanical delivery methods, pellets maintain greater integrity. The key is to get the pellet from one location to another without having it contact a mechanical device, Otten says. “Every time a pellet touches a mechanical device, it loses about two to three percent of its efficiency to sawdust.”  

The trucks are able to deliver the pellets up to 100 feet away from a structure and even send  them 75 to 80 feet uphill, if needed. The pressurized vehicles deliver fuel at roughly 3.5 minutes per ton via the delivery hose hooked to the side of the building. The driver uses a remote control to operate the truck, filling the storage bag inside the facility.  

Pellet Success 
One of the larger, energy success stories from the Berlin Model Neighborhood Project is the St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts. Housed in a historic 19th century church, the community center had two boilers used for heat, with the largest heating the main zone, combusting 6 to 7 gallons of heating oil per hour. “It was like having a dragon in the basement,” says Joan Chamberlain, retired executive director of the community center. “Once it fired up, it rattled and things all happened.” 

To address rising fuel costs, the community center completed the first phase of its path to pellet heating between 2010 and 2011 by completing a comprehensive feasibility study. The center examined available heating options and spoke with the forest service about becoming a model project. “Berlin is the center of the Northern Forest, it just kind of makes intuitive sense,” Chamberlain says. “The auditor played out that scenario and bought that as the most viable solution.”  

After securing the needed funding, the center completed the second phase of its project, installing the two new pellet boilers and storage bags. The contractors moved in the new boilers and built the storage room using a portion of the basement’s walk-out community room. By locating the fuel storage in the basement, the center is able to quickly receive fuel and avoid maintaining an outdoor storage facility, Chamberlain says. “Deliveries are slick. They deliver like they do oil.”

MES delivers the fuel through four-inch pipes on the north side of the center that initially stood about 18 inches above ground. The delivery personnel turn off the boilers and run the truck’s hoses from the street to the pipes that lead directly to the two 6-ton storage bags. After snow piled up in front of the delivery pipes, the center modified the pipes by extending them to 4 feet to be ready for the current winter season. “It’s a new process and product for all of us,” Chamberlain says. “It was a great learning process for my board and our partners.”

In the third phase of the project, insulation was installed throughout the building. During an assessment of the ceiling, it was discovered there were 10 to 12 inches of space in some sections that had no insulation, letting heat escape through the arched roof. “Years ago, they just didn’t worry about it,” she says. 

With the new insulation and pellet boilers in place, the center saves around $10,000 in annual heating costs. During the first winter, the center used $7,300 worth of pellets and still ended the season with 6 to 7 tons left over. Furthermore, by having two boilers, the facility is able to meet the heating demands for the coldest parts of the winter and use one as a backup in the event the other needs to be shut down. 

“It’s allowing us to be in our home during some of our best programming months,” Chamberlain says. “This opportunity to get a handle on our energy costs, is allowing us to have a comfortable environment for our guests and our artists and operate comfortably and efficiently during the winter months.”

Industry Impact
By creating these model projects, the forest center and its partners are not only demonstrating the benefits of wood pellet boilers, but also addressing some of the infrastructure and financial challenges of the wood pellet industry. “The whole goal of the project is to catalyze the market and industry for small-scale pellet boilers. It’s really an untapped opportunity at this point,” Adams says. She adds the projects help build infrastructure by assuring adequate amounts of available fuel and delivery methods, while also addressing financial institutions and insurance companies’ comfort with the technology. “As we deal with this, almost like a test case in these particular communities, we are working through a lot of issues so that we can then expand it and make it more widespread.” 

In anticipation of larger bulk orders, Geneva Wood Fuels has built a large holding silo for wood pellets. “The growth of pellets has definitely been going up in a big way, with our business and specifically in bulk,” Kahn says. “We’re up almost 50 percent this year in our bulk volume. It’s really grown, and I think some of our competitors have similar experiences.” 

The neighborhood projects work to foster greater customer density that may help boost the bulk pellet delivery infrastructure. “If you create the density and you have several folks looking for delivery in the same area, it incentivizes that equipment,” Kahn says. “This is a great jumpstart to the introduction of pellets into a community.”  By becoming involved in similar projects, pellet producers are able to organically grow their customer base and the industry, Kahn says. “It’s really one customer at a time on the domestic side,” he says. It’s one thing for customers to read about pellet growth, but seeing the technology in action is a big influence on growing the industry, he adds. “When it’s tangible, and you see your neighbors doing it, it just grows the market.” 

Word of mouth has helped make the Berlin project become a success. When Maine Energy Systems sells a boiler system, the customer is sometimes the next person to sell a boiler, Otten says.  “Seeing is believing. The Northern Forest Center project is probably the best example in the United States of how well that can work.”

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Pellet Mill Magazine
[email protected]