I just returned from the Heating the Midwest conference – a spinoff of the annual Northeast Biomass Heating Expo – where I learned that sharing lessons learned and the progress made in the Northeast can prove helpful to other regions. I was particularly struck by how the Northern Forest states’ investment in modern wood heat – through both demand- and supply-side incentives and other supportive policies – has been essential for market development.

Cycle ADK Long Saranac

Can bike tourism help reinvigorate Adirondack communities? That is the question I asked myself as I represented the Center at a top-notch cycling tour through the Adirondacks sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The ride represented so much of what we care about. It showcased community spirit, the outstanding landscape, and conservation science, all while exposing cyclists from across the country to a resilient, beautiful part of the Northern Forest.

At the Northern Forest Center, we share the concerns of rural places facing the alarming loss of young people and the resulting pressures on the ability of schools, health care and local governments to provide excellent services. This loss endangers the very social fabric of communities. And yet, there are bright spots of resurgence across the Northern Forest; communities that are finding ways to rekindle their vitality and draw in new people. Our collective challenge is to learn from these places and transfer their great examples to help communities across the region.

Newport VT main st webThere’s no denying it—the challenges presented by declining populations, particularly in younger demographics, place a drag on the overall economy. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, a self-perpetuating cycle is taking over in some areas:

“Capital chases high-growth ideas, and high-growth ideas tend to be concentrated in areas of highly educated and highly skilled workforce,” said Manuel Adelino, an economist at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University who has published several research papers on entrepreneurship patterns and credit availability. “This suggests that the lack of new business formation in rural America may lead to widening gaps in income and employment” between those areas and big cities.

People in the modern wood heat community – from boiler importers, installers, and pellet vendors to agency and NGO staff –care deeply about their work. Their motivations are greater than a paycheck: whether it’s reducing fossil fuel use, keeping heating dollars in the region, or helping communities cut and stabilize heating costs, some greater mission is keeping them in the wood heat world. Maybe it’s that sense of mission that keeps them in this business despite all the challenges.

Biomass Heating Expo 2016 001This community’s tenacity and sense of purpose were easily visible at this year’s Northeast Biomass Heating Expo, held in Burlington, Vermont, at the end of March. Many of us were worried it would feel grim, since oil prices, a mild winter, and some naysayers have been tough on the wood heat community lately. Even guests visiting from Upper Austria had low expectations. OkoFEN pellet boiler CEO Stefan Ortner told organizers that he “expected a very bad mood because of the low oil price.” Instead, he “found a lot of dedicated people full of motivation and trust in this industry.”

That sense of motivation and trust were also evident in participants’ willingness to engage in difficult conversations. The conference included many provocative topics: carbon emissions, air quality impact, pros and cons of thermal storage, and more. People openly disagreed with each other, but did so respectfully – and still enjoyed glasses of Von Trapp lager together later. As organizer Adam Sherman of the Biomass Energy Resource Center put it, “When we get together as an industry we can ask the hard questions and have honest and open dialogues about how we move forward.”

At the final session, speaker and uber advocate Charlie Niebling asked audience members to share one worry that keeps them up at night and one thing that gives them hope about this industry. Worries ranged widely, but there was plenty of positive commentary too. One comment particularly stuck with me. Christiane Egger, deputy manager of the O.Ö. Energiesparverband (the energy agency of Upper Austria, the epicenter of wood heat technology), told Charlie afterward: “That session represents what is best about America. Opening up and sharing honest views about ‘what keeps me up at night’ is something Austrians would never do!” It’s nice to know we’re distinct in that positive way. It can only help us in the long run.

Niebling shared a perspective with me that summarizes the Expo nicely: “I always come away from the Expo energized about the important contributions we make to the economy of northern New England and New York, and what we can do together to extend these benefits more broadly.”

My colleagues and I at the Northern Forest Center would love to hear about your experiences as part of the “modern wood heat community” and how you’re extending the benefits of wood heat across the region. Send me an email and we may share your thoughts on our Facebook page or in a future Wood Heat Advocate.