Thermal Trailblazers

Charlie Niebling, Scott Nichols, Norbert Senf and John Ackerly are committed to advancing the biomass thermal industry.
By Anna Simet | March 23, 2014

Perhaps there’s something in the water. The Northeast U.S.—New Hampshire, in particular—continues to produce some of the most dedicated and bright biomass thermal industry professionals in the country. As a direct result of their businesses, trade organizations, public education and policymaking efforts actions, biomass thermal—often referred to as “the forgotten renewable”— has made leaps and bounds over the past several years. Recognizing that the road to equivalence with other renewables is still long, however, and underutilized potential great, the following industry standouts aren’t stopping short of their biomass thermal-boosting goals.

The phrase “First work, then play” isn’t applicable to Charlie Niebling. For him, work is play. Most biomass thermal industry stakeholders—veterans and newcomers alike—have likely heard of or met Niebling, whose friendly demeanor, wealth of knowledge and untouchable dedication to the industry, keep his involvement in trade associations, working groups and conferences in high demand.

Niebling, who grew up, and currently resides, in New Hampshire, took an interest in forestry and conservation early on, he says, as his father owned woodlots. He achieved bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Vermont and Pennsylvania State University, respectively, and his first job out of graduate school was as a research forest biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in California. “That was in 1984,” Niebling reflects. “After a few years, I moved back to New Hampshire and got a job as executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.”

After a two-year stint of self-employment at Innovative Natural Resource Solutions—a firm that he co-founded and would rejoin in 2013—Niebling became vice president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, where he was in charge of managing 40,000 acres of woodlands and oversaw all policy work . He remained there through 2005. “So except for the two years as a consultant, I spent the first 21 years of my career working for government or nonprofits,” Niebling says. “I was eager to join a business, and a fantastic opportunity opened up with New England Wood Pellet in late 2005 to help the company implement an aggressive growth strategy.”

  Niebling retained the position of NEWP general manager until March 2013, and then rejoined INRS, which he says allows him to pursue many other biomass thermal-related opportunities.  He continues to manage wood procurement for NEWP’s Jaffrey, N.H., mill, however, and represents the company in public, corporate and government affairs.  While that represents half of his time, the other half is spent at INRS, which is involved in a wide range of projects working with corporate, government and nonprofit clients.  He also continues to play an intricate role in building a stronger industry through multiple trade groups and other industry and public interest initiatives.

On marked changes he has seen in the industry throughout the years, Niebling says the Northeast pellet industry has become much wiser about manufacturing and distribution. “The industry has done a good job of working together to build a supportive policy framework for high-efficiency biomass heating,” he says. “We are getting closer to mainstream public acceptance and critical mass in market growth.”

Niebling is especially proud of helping found BTEC, which began with eight companies and now represents nearly 150 members. “I’m also proud of some of the increased awareness and acceptance of biomass heating as a legitimate renewable energy opportunity, especially here in the Northeast,” he says. “I was pleased to play a role in getting New Hampshire to enact a comprehensive thermal carve-out in its renewable portfolio standard program, and I’m hopeful that other states will follow with similar policy recognition.”

Before he calls his career a wrap, Niebling says he hopes to see much more widespread adoption of pellet, chip and logwood heating across the Northeast, within the sustainable limits of the region’s biomass supply. “I would like to see our region greatly reduce its unhealthy dependence on imported oil for heat, as well as healthy, well-managed forests sustaining a strong forest industry that includes energy, pulp and paper, and solid wood products in an integrated economy.”

Although Niebling does have interests outside the industry, which include four children, long-distance bicycle touring, ice hockey, bluegrass banjo and—of course—managing his woodlot, he has made his career into a full-time hobby that he is incontestably passionate about. And, he gets to do what he loves, from his stomping grounds. “My career has kept me at the intersection of forestry, renewable energy and natural resource policy, where my expertise is,” Niebling adds. “It’s also kept me in New Hampshire, the state I love.”

Scott Nichols

As his signatory catch phrase suggests, Scott Nichols is feeling good about wood. In fact, his enthusiasm for the biomass thermal industry drew him thousands of miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to Lyme, N.H., the town where he grew up and currently resides.

Nichols’ family owned a local hardware store and hearth shop for many years, he says, where wood-burning boiler sales had become an important part of business. That ultimately led Nichols’ father, Jim, and uncle, Lloyd, to purchase Tarm USA in 1995, and they began importing HS-Tarm wood-burning boilers, a company that produces over 60 percent of the home boilers used in Denmark.
Nichols couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to become a part of it all. “It was exciting to me,” he shares. “Growing up around the business, and many years of wood harvest, wood burning, plumbing and all that surrounds it, were formative to my upbringing. I always wanted to combine business with the environment, and knew that wood-based heating was a viable pathway.”

Under the tutelage of his father and uncle, Nichols became responsible for running his family’s hearth shop, which included buying, merchandising, viewing and estimating installations, and managing an installation crew.  While he seamlessly settled into his career, Nichols was soon faced with business and family challenges that he describes as “simply unimaginable. In 2006, I was thrust into a higher leadership role after my father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away,” he says. My uncle taught me some of the higher-level aspects of our business for six months before he, too, suddenly and unexpectedly died. This was a trial by fire.”

  Fortunately, Nichols had the support of a great staff, he says, and benefitted from sharing leadership with his uncle Lloyd’s recently hired son-in-law, John Redmond. “He was living in Colorado and had been hired to expand our business in the West,” Nichols says. “The two of us began running the business based on what we knew and what our mutual goals were because we had no other choice.”

  On what his work typically entails, Nichols says during the heating season, the week is spent solving customers’ technical questions. “We have a legacy of 40 years of boilers that are in the field, many of them sold directly to the end user,” he explains. “Our company is small, which means that I also have my hands in everything from payroll to opening the mail.  I am the purchaser, show planner and public speaker. There is no end to the minutiea and meetings alike.” 

As heating season tails away, Nichols’s work hours are dedicated more substantially to planning work and industry committees. 

On changes he’s observed in the biomass heating sector since he was handed the reins of Tarm Biomass, Nichols says competitiveness has significantly increased. “After the meteoric rise of business in 2008, our sector has become much more [competitive],” he says. “Until 2007, we had experienced years of steady growth and relatively stable energy markets. In 2008, many companies entered the market thinking that there were huge opportunities that would result from $4.50 [per gallon] oil. Of course, oil prices and the health of the global economy sunk at the same time.”

As a consequence, more companies began to compete for a market share experiencing what Nichols deems “very slow growth. Due in large part to the organization of trade groups, energy policy makers have favored our sector with rebates and grants,” he says. “Prior to 2008, these handouts were unheard of and unnecessary. Today, I wonder if our sector of small pellet boilers—less than 1 MMBtu per hour—could survive without public money.”

Other winds of change have come in the form of regulation, Nichols adds, and a relentless community of people who are critical of burning biomass. “With publicity and organization, we have attracted more detractors than we knew were possible prior to 2007,” he says.

Outside of work, Nichols spends his time attending his kids’ sporting events, and he jokes that he’s been finishing his house since 1997. His remaining hobbies compliment his career choice:  maple syrup making, hunting, fishing, biking, and, of course, managing his woodlot.

Summing up his passion for his career, Nichols says that besides running a third-generation, family-owned business, his drive stems from philosophical reasons, and the shear challenge of building his business through tumultuous energy and broader markets.  “Running a business that is so intimately tied to global issues,  my own back yard and the back yards of my customers—and the local aspect of heating with wood—keeps me informed and wanting to learn more.”

John Ackerly

John Ackerly is fighting the good fight—but peacefully, of course, as a deep admirer of the Dalai Lama. For the past five years, Ackerly has demonstrated unwavering dedication to helping residential biomass heating earn treatment parallel to other renewables, as well as recognition as the most common method of heating homes in the country.

Ackerly grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  His initial career aspiration didn’t mirror anything close to what he is doing now—he wanted to be a lawyer. “Since I was about 10,” he says, “I was so moved by newspaper articles and TV coverage of the civil rights struggle in our country.  I eventually went to law school, but got so sick of law books that I went to Alaska to work on fishing boats and clear my head.”

Later, Ackerly passed the bar exam, got a job as a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, and after an eventful pro-democracy protest in Tibet in 1987, he became president of the International Campaign for Tibet, a nonprofit human rights group in Washington. “I am not a spiritual person, much less Buddhist, but I developed a deep admiration for the Dalai Lama, who is an advocate for nonviolence,” he shares.

It was in 2005 that wood stoves began to spark an interest in Ackerly. “I became an armchair wood stove advocate and would write letters to the editor about the potential of wood stoves, and realized that there weren’t many professional advocates for residential wood heating, particularly in Washington, D.C.,” he says.

A few years later, Ackerly was ready for a career change. “I decided to make my hobby a career, and tried to find a nonprofit environmental or renewable energy group that wanted to start a wood heating project,” he says. “It only took me about a month to realize how uninterested established nonprofits were in residential wood heat, even though I showed them data demonstrating that it was the largest source of residential renewable energy. I decided to form my own nonprofit, and got in touch with the Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association and met some very ambitious and creative people forming the Biomass Thermal Energy Council. They had also identified the void in Washington advocacy but were more focused on larger heating systems, so I joined their board of directors and have worked closely with them ever since.”

Ackerly says he’s not sure why he has always loved wood stoves, but, coincidentally, as a teenager, he would stop by Scott Nichols’s family’s hardware store to admire the offerings there. “Growing up in New Hampshire, I saw how reliant farmers and others were on wood and how effective and sustainable it was, but all the incentives were flowing to wealthy families to install solar panels. This struck me as profoundly unfair, particularly as wood pellet stoves and clean indoor boilers came on the market.  I still believe that the low- and middle-income families who burn wood and pellets are the real unsung leaders of the renewable energy movement in America.  We just have not had a government interested enough to fund research and development or update regulations in a timely way to get wood stoves clean enough.”

Since his segue into the industry, Ackerly says he has paradoxically seen more support and interest in wood heating, and more opposition. “In 2009, no Eastern states had any incentive programs for stoves or boilers, and today there are five,” he points out. “At the same time, groups opposing biomass have become more vocal, at first just against biomass to electricity, but now it’s more generalized.  As a pro-wood heating consumer organization, we often find ourselves in between industry and environmental groups.  Some weeks when we get hate mail from both sides, I try to take it as a sign that we are doing a good job.”

In his biomass thermal career stint so far, Ackerly says he’s been most gratified by the Wood Stove Design Challenge that Alliance for Green Heat hosted last year in Washington, D.C.  “We wanted it to be both a showcase of new, innovative and clean technology and a real competition to see who could made the most affordable, cleanest and most efficient device,” he says. “While we did not get the level of engagement from EPA and DOE that we had hoped, it was a huge success and helped to raise the profile of wood technology in Washington.”

Another major accomplishment of AFGH is getting Maryland’s wood stove rebate program started.  “The fossil fuel industry killed the legislation for the program two years in a row, but the Maryland Energy Administration realized it was a program that they should fund anyway. 

There are a number of things Ackerly hopes to see happen during his time in the biomass thermal industry, one being the number of U.S. homes heated with wood and pellets to rise from 2.3 percent—some of which need equipment upgrades—to 5 percent.

He hopes heating with wood and pellets becomes even cleaner, enough to be fully embraced by policymakers. “I also want to see the same incentives that solar and geothermal receive,” he adds, “a green label for wood and pellet stoves, and boilers emerge and become nationally recognized.”

Norbert Senf

An expert and advocate for a lesser-known but mega-efficient method of heating a home, the road to Norbert Senf’s eventual career began when he learned the masonry trade from his father for a summer job.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, and raised in Toronto, where he studied mechanical engineering, Senf now resides in Quebec, where he first became familiar with masonry heaters. “I’ve been fascinated with them ever since,” he says.

That was in 1978, and one year later he built his first masonry heater for a neighbor, using design information from Austria (he is still able to read German). “In 1981, I learned about Finnish contraflow heaters, and have been building those ever since,” Senf says. “I originally got into prefabricating castable refractory components, to cut down the on-site labor time. That eventually led to a small manufacturing business, and now we sell a contraflow heater core kit.”

While masonry heaters are indigenous to the colder parts of Europe, such as Scandinavia, Austria and Russia, they aren’t well known in North America. “North America’s cultural traditions are British and French,” Senf says. “Both of those cultures only had open fireplaces, and basically used to freeze in the winter.”

That fact is unfortunate, because not only are masonry heaters picturesque works of art, but low-emission and very efficient. “It’s similar to a site-built masonry fireplace, but the difference is that it has an airtight glass door, and a special internal flue path to exchange heat to its thermal mass,” Senf explains. “A typical North American heater will burn a 60-pound charge of wood in two to three hours and store that heat in an 8,000-pound mass, which then slowly radiates into the house for the next 24 hours. Because of that storage ability, one can burn the wood at an optimum burn rate for efficiency and low emissions.”

Senf says he built his neighbor’s contraflow heater in 1981, and the chimney has never needed cleaning. “It’s the cleanest way you can burn cordwood on a domestic scale,” he says. “A reasonably good operator using seasoned wood will burn at about the same [particulate emission rate] as a pellet stove.”

Additionally, wood-burning mason heaters avoid a lot of the mess and attention that a normal woodstove requires. “My woodshed is close to our heater, and it takes me about 10 minutes a day to load the firebox and light it. We then enjoy a nice fire for the next few hours. Because it is a radiant system, similar to a hydronic floor, there is a lot less dust, and also a lot less heat stratification. You don’t need a ceiling fan, and the upstairs of the house does not overheat.”

Senf was a founding member and tech committee chair of the Masonry Heater Association, which formed about 30 years ago. MHAR is currently reviewing the U.S. EPA’s draft of New Source Performance Standards for residential heating appliances, Senf says, which will regulate masonry heaters for the first time. 

As currently written, they would have a devastating effect on the masonry heating sector. “The draft NSPS wants to force every small builder into a ‘manufacturer’ role with ‘model lines’ that need testing at an EPA-accredited lab. Then, they want us to store a sealed version of that model at our own facility. This is boilerplate taken from metal stove regulations, and does not recognize the peculiarities of our industry. As currently proposed, it will put everyone out of business.”

 As a result of the recession, and due to the fact that masonry heaters are higher-end items due to the craftsmanship involved, only about 500 get built in the U.S. each year. “Total particulate emissions from those 500 heaters are about the same as five old-technology outdoor boilers,” Senf says. “We need EPA certification, however, because localities that regulate wood burning will often specify EPA-certified stoves only, and we fall through the cracks. Exemption doesn’t count, even if you are the cleanest thing on the block.”

Besides achieving fair treatment of masonry heaters regulationwise, before he builds his last one, Senf says he’d like to see domestic wood heating properly recognized as the largest component of the renewable energy sector. “Also, for many people like myself in an ex-urban location, it is the lowest-hanging fruit if I want to reduce my personal carbon footprint. The problem with wood heat, of course, is the emissions. We have a fix for that, and I want to get as high on that learning curve as I possibly can.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine