What does success look like in wood heat? Dots. Lots of colored dots. That’s what struck me as I mapped our wood heat projects and associated infrastructure as a way to literally see where our work has made a difference. Even though my map was not comprehensive, it easily showed the growing density of the necessary ingredients for switching the region from oil to wood pellet heating. There are more pellet boiler manufacturers, more qualified installers, more bulk delivery services, and more boiler installations than ever before, especially in northern New Hampshire and western Maine where the Center has been most active. Here’s a deeper look at how we’re approaching this major shift to heating with a local, renewable resource.
Increasing familiarity and demand has been the Center’s primary focus to date. For high-efficiency, low-emissions, centralized wood pellet boilers to become “common and ordinary,” as Maine Energy Systems’ Les Otten puts it, people need to know they exist as a viable heating alternative. Learning about a neighbor’s new boiler, seeing a regular pellet delivery truck in town, and reading about this technology in the local paper all help increase familiarity and stimulate demand, which is why the Center’s approach has been to create clusters of users in Model Neighborhoods where early adopters can share their experiences with others and where media can tell the story of this shift.
Expanded infrastructure for installation, service, and bulk pellet delivery is essential to support growing demand. But as with any new industry, there is a “chicken and egg” problem to overcome. The Model Neighborhood Project provides incentives and support for a cluster of new boilers in a small geographic area, quickly creating a sufficient customer base to motivate retailers, technicians and delivery companies to service the community. From this modest beginning, market for boilers should continue to increase, providing room for growth on the infrastructure side.
Supportive public policy helps catalyze the market. For example, New Hampshire and Maine’s rebates for this technology – about 30% of the total cost – have resulted in over 200 installations and are helping to drive competition and lower system costs. These programs’ practical, easily understandable requirements can be met by today’s best-in-class boilers, and the rebate process is straightforward. Thanks to the rebates, more than 200 families are saving thousands on heating bills and contributing to the local economy. Based on dollars saved, pellet sales and a modest job multiplier, 200 households switching from oil to wood pellets generates over $1 million per year in regional economic benefits. The Center has advocated for the strong incentive programs in Maine and New Hampshire, and continues to work with policy makers in Vermont and New York to create similar opportunities.
Attractive financing options can put these boilers in closer reach of the average homeowner. Only a handful of lending institutions currently offer lower-cost loans specifically for these systems or other energy upgrades; most offer only market-rate home equity loans or lines of credit. The Center is helping homeowners find and access attractive loans, including those offered by state agencies such as Efficiency Maine. For non-residential buildings, the Center helps identify additional grants and loans to cover costs, and assists with grant proposals. .
Installing boilers alone is not enough. The Center is committed to working with an array of partners to add more and more dots to the map in the coming months and years. We look forward to a day when advanced wood pellet boilers are so common and ordinary—and the infrastructure is so complete, public policy so supportive and financing so readily available that it is impossible to map it all!