Living In The Limelight

Maine Pellet Fuels Association Executive Director Bill Bell on why wood pellets have recently been the center of attention in Maine.
By Bill Bell | May 01, 2015

 “I read the news today, oh boy…”  (“A Day in the Life,” The Beatles, 1967)

In the ongoing media coverage of Maine’s severe winter, it was perhaps inevitable that pellet heating issues would make the front page. The first story surfaced in Maine’s northernmost Aroostook County, where, during February’s subzero temperatures, the local CBS affiliate reported, “County Retailers and Bulk Distributors Struggling with High Demand for Wood Pellets.” A follow-up piece featured the owner of Northeast Pellets as a manufacturer working hard to keep up with demand and wishing that retailers would place their orders earlier. It included great footage of his plant and bagged product. So far, so good.

Shortly thereafter, on Valentine’s Day, the Bangor newspaper headlined “Stores Running Out of Wood Pellets,” while also enabling our association to outline the need for earlier ordering by retailers.  However, a few days later, a southern Maine TV news station headlined “Stores Running Out of Wood Pellets—Suppliers Focus on Getting Shipments to Larger Stores.” The interview featured a decidedly grouchy hardware store owner. A few days later, Maine’s most-viewed TV news went with “Wood Pellet Distributors Deny Shortage in Maine.”

During the midst of these stories, U.S. Sen. Angus King was back in Maine, using a pellet-heated ski lodge to announce his reintroduction of the BTU Act. This proposal, which our industry is working hard to see enacted, will provide biomass heating with the same federal tax advantages accorded to other renewable energies. King, a former TV host himself, suggested to some of our members that we simply assign the temporary pellet scarcity to the winter weather. In light of how quickly the “shortage” stories disappeared after a few days above freezing, this answer might have sufficed.

Subsequently, a more political story has put pellets and other forms of heating back in the headlines. It seems that the legislation that made possible Maine’s $5,000-per-boiler incentive program, also in its final passage, accidentally deleted the word “and” from a key sentence. In a 2-1 decision, our state’s Public Utilities Commission has determined that Efficiency Maine’s funding stream must therefore be severely curtailed come July 1, 2016.

Maine’s Democratic party, still stung by abject failure in the 2014 elections, quickly made Efficiency Maine their poster child and generated a party fundraising appeal. Our state’s largest environmental organization mounted a contact-your-legislator campaign. Republican legislators have agreed to consider a legislative “fix,” but only if some of their other concerns with the law, which was originally passed over our governor’s veto, are addressed as well. The media loves the drama engendered by a redrafting error. For our industry, the public attention to home heating issues is welcome, provided cooler heads prevail and resolve the funding language issue between now and next year.

The third issue placing home heating in the media spotlight involves an initiative that began two years ago.  Significant parcels of our state’s forests are located on public lands, going back to the colonial charter, which set aside special lots for public purposes such as building towns and schools.  For the past several years, the Maine Forest Service has been increasing the allowable harvest on these lands, to the dismay of some conservationists who believe these lots should be managed to preserve old growth. Two years ago, our association proposed a revenue bond whereby proceeds from the increased harvest would go to incentivize pellet boiler sales.  Maine’s largest environmental group went ballistic.  Efficiency Maine initiated a pellet boiler incentive program. We dropped the issue. Our governor, reelected by the largest number of votes in Maine history, has brought it back.

The governor now proposes that the timber harvest funds go “to heat Maine homes” without reference to any particular technology. Environmental groups are just as opposed now as they were two years ago. In response, the governor is holding hostage bond funds for land conservation. These funds were approved by Maine voters. Many of these voters are the same folks who see wood pellets as a great alternative to fossil fuel. This time around, we are simply interested observers.

Author: Bill Bell Executive Director,
Maine Pellet Fuels Association