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North Country has plenty of wood pellet energy, not enough consumers. Photo: Jasmine Wallace
North Country has plenty of wood pellet energy, not enough consumers. Photo: Jasmine Wallace

North Country's wood pellet heat industry struggles, despite abundance

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This week, we're taking a fresh look at the idea of renewable and locally produced energy in the North Country. For many homeowners, one of the most accessible and affordable ways to shift away from fossil fuels is to buy a pellet stove. Those are wood stoves or furnaces that burn those little rabbit-pellet sized chunks of wood or grass.

A few years ago, there was sort of a boom in the pellet stove industry. But now the market has sagged. As Brian Mann reports, local companies say the technology needs to get even easier and more user-friendly for more consumers to give it a try.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Lonnie Ford takes me down to his basement with the same kind of eagerness you’d see in some guys who are showing off an old car they’ve rebuilt in their garage.

"So there you go," he says.  "It's my big shiny.  We're looking at a pellet furnace with a forced air system. This is essentially the heart of the system and as the guy who put it in said, 'Now you're house has a heart.'  And it really has made a big difference."

Ford lives in Saranac Lake, which in winter is regularly one of the coldest communities in North America.  He owns one of those old Sears catalogue homes, not very big, with a sort of quaint cottage feel. Heating it with electric and kerosene was expensive, and Ford says the house still felt cold and drafty.  So last fall he took the plunge, buying a Harman PF 100 Forced Air pellet furnace.  It was a big investment.

"We took out a loan to make this happen, but we're already seeing return.  Our electric bill has nose-dived," said Ford. He is part of what renewable energy advocates hope will be the next big wave: people making the switch away from oil. Ford now buys his heating pellets right here in the region, sort of the more and more people are trying to buy their food locally. 

"Curran is what I burn, they're out of Massena," Ford said. "They're an ecologically conscious business...and the product that they make is very, very good."

While most of us are shipping a lot of our energy dollars overseas to the Middle East or South America, Lonnie Ford is buying his energy from a neighbor in the North Country. Pat Curran, at Curran Renewable Energy in Massena, said, "We have been in operation now, this is our third year."

But here’s the wrinkle: while Lonnie Ford has made the switch, a lot of people aren’t converting to this kind of local energy.  The boom in pellet stoves has sagged. "There is a glut of pellets," Curran says. He thinks there are a couple of reasons more consumers aren’t buying in.  The really good pellet furnaces are expensive.  And because there are no locked in standards for equipment or pellets, homeowners are sort of confused.

"There are a lot of pellet stoves sold that are inferior and they create a lot of work for the people using them.  If there could be a standard, we could create something that really takes the end work away from the consumer, and then we could really grow the industry," said Curran. It turns out that a lot of American companies that make these furnaces and a lot of companies that make the actual wood pellets have resisted any kind of regulation.

"Unfortunately, it's still a bit of the wild west out there, with pellet fuel," says Charlie Niebling, the general manager of a company called New England Wood Pellet based in Jaffrey New Hampshire. He was part of a renewable energy conference held last month in Lake Placid by the Adirondack North Country Association.

"You can say premium on your bag and you can shovel any old crap into the bag and there's really nothing to stop you," Niebling acknowledged. At the conference, experts described what they see as growing pains for a new industry that has already been stung once. 

Remember a few years ago when people bought all those outside wood boilers that turned out to be really polluting?  A lot of communities wound up banning them. Consumers were furious. No one in the biomass industry wants to repeat that disaster in an industry that markets itself as a green alternative.

But Phillip Hopke, director of the Institute for a Susainable Environment at Clarkson, says a study conducted by his researchers fond that some manufacturers are actually using contaminated wood to produce their pellets. Hopke said, "We're going to have to make sure that we keep out the pressure treated wood, old painted materials, so that we're not creating a health hazard by putting toxic heavy metals up your chimney."

This kind of thing makes advocates of wood pellet heat cringe.  They point to the fact that in Europe, stringent standards have helped the industry grow more quickly. In the meantime, consumers like Lonnie Ford sort of have to go it alone, spending a lot of time online researching the best furnace companies, and the best sources of pellets. 

That’s a heavy lift for people who just want reliable heat without much thinking.  But Ford says the investment of money and care and time was worth it and said, "Just from the standpoint of conscience, I wanted to get off oil.  It gives me a little more feeling of control and independence over my life and my family's life.  Those are kind of ethereal thoughts, but that was part of the thought process."

The idea of energy independence and the desire to cut greenhouse gas pollution will win over some consumers. But industry experts say that for this kind of local energy to really take off will take a combination of factors, from higher oil prices, to better industry standards, to more government incentives. 

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