Wood Heat Leadership SummitThe Center and the University of Vermont (UVM) convened the first Northeast Wood Heat Leadership Summit Jan. 7 – 8 to release new research findings, address challenges and opportunities for the sector, and learn from the experiences of the wood heat markets in the United Kingdom and Europe. More than 55 leaders from the wood heat, education, public and nonprofit sectors attended the event, which was funded by the Northeastern States Research Cooperative

One notable session featured UVM Professor Cecilia Danks, PhD candidate Laura Edling, and recent UVM graduates Rachel Bowanko and Adam Wechsler presenting results from surveys and interviews they conducted to learn about the factors that affect decisions to purchase automated wood pellet heating systems. Among other findings, the survey showed that wanting an alternative to fossil fuels was the number-one reason for a majority of respondents who purchased pellet boilers. 

The research team also found that financial incentives and rebates—which vary widely for wood heat systems throughout the New England and New York—also influenced buying decisions. Of the people who installed a pellet boiler, 61% cited the financial rebates as being very influential in their decision-making process, and 70% of them were very satisfied with their purchase. Conversely, 80% of people who did not purchase an automated wood heat system indicated that a higher state or federal incentive would have made them more likely to make the purchase. Information about current rebates and subsidies is available at www.feelgoodheat.org.

Neil Harrison, founder of re:heat and Director of the UK Wood Heat Association, flew in from England to share his insights from the UK and European market, but began by sharing that until his drive from Albany, NY, to Vermont, “I had never seen so many trees in my life before.” He pointed to differences between the British and US markets, but highlighted the universal need to implement rigorous installation standards to retain consumer trust. Biomass and wood heat are better known in the UK than in the United States, but he said that poorly implemented government incentives have taken a toll on the industry’s reputation. 

Throughout the Summit, expert panelists discussed the many challenges and opportunities facing the sector. Across the board, stakeholders agreed that one of their biggest challenges is lack of consumer knowledge about wood heat systems. One good way to engage consumers, they agreed, was by showing them that wood heat gives the local economy a boost and can result in significant savings. For example, Adam Sherman of the Biomass Energy Resource Center noted that 80 cents of every dollar spent on wood heat remains in the local economy, versus only 22 cents of every dollar spent on gas or propane. And people can sometimes save nearly 50% on their heating bill when they switch to wood heat from oil or propane, according to Mark Froling of Froling Energy.  

Adding to the conversation about consumer engagement, the Summit reinforced the need to boost overall communication and branding as an industry. Feel Good Heat is a public awareness campaign coordinated by the Center to inform consumers about Automated Wood Heat as an alternative to fossil fuels. More than 50 business, municipal, and nonprofit organizations have joined the Feel Good Heat campaign to promote use of Automated Wood Heat across the Northeast.

During a marketing-focused session, Emma Hanson, the State of Vermont’s Wood Energy Coordinator, stressed the importance of preparing a 30-second sound bite for reporters. Kelly Curran Ramsey of Curran Renewable Energy in northern New York said that the Feel Good Heat campaign’s two-page fact sheet has been helpful in converting clients to wood heat. Scott Nichols of Tarm Biomass in Orford, New Hampshire affirmed the importance of brand-neutral, independent voices in helping consumers understand this heating option.

The enthusiasm throughout the Summit for growing the wood heat market, keeping forests as forests, and deepening community connections set an exciting tone for the beginning of 2019. Participants discussed the possibility of establishing a regional working group to continue timely and relevant conversations throughout the year.

Members of the planning team for the Summit included: Maura Adams, Northern Forest Center; Bill Bell, Maine Pellet Fuels Association; Ansley Bloomer, Renewable Energy Vermont; Cecilia Danks, University of Vermont; Emma Hanson, State of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources;  Scott Nichols, Tarm Biomass; Charlie Niebling, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions; Adam Sherman, Biomass Energy Resource Center; and Joe Short, Northern Forest Center.

Complete findings from the UVM research will be available later this year.