By: Maura Adams

Peter Bourne stood at a lectern in Burlington recently, renewable energy leadership award in hand, and smiled. “I’m pretty sure this is the first time people at a climate change conference ever clapped for the owner of a fossil fuel company,” he said, and the crowd clapped even more, laughing in a moment of rare affinity with someone whose bread and butter is, after all, oil and propane sales.

AWH Marketing Pellet DeliveryBut Bourne’s Energy – along with Sandri in Massachusetts, Ehrhart and Vincent’s in New York, and Daigle Oil in Maine, among others – is also helping create a cleaner energy future by expanding into bulk wood pellet delivery and boiler installation. Switching from fossil fuels to wood pellets for heat cuts carbon emissions by over 50%, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the Northern Forest Center ( Companies like these are making significant investments in this sector, because they recognize both the environmental benefits and economic opportunity associated with local, renewable heat.

Wouldn’t it be great to feel good about how you heat?

Not everyone can feel good when they reach for the thermostat, but we should. Most of us who heat with wood think that it’s good for the environment and good for the broader forest economy and our communities. Intuitively it makes sense. Heating with local wood, supporting local jobs and keeping our heating dollars local must be better than using fossil fuels. 

Now we’ve got data that proves heating with wood pellet fuel instead of fossil fuels in the Northern Forest drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve just announced the results of a research study for our region confirming that switching to modern wood heat – using a high-efficiency wood pellet boiler or stove – instead of oil will cut your greenhouse gas emissions by 54% immediately, and it gets even better over time. Switching from natural gas to wood pellets cuts your emissions by 59%. Fuel comparison GHG study 50years

That is significant news for the Northern Forest region, where the single biggest thing you can do to cut your contribution to the rising levels of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is to change how you heat your home! 

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.

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.