Coming Together in the Name of Wood Heat

In January, nearly 60 wood heat leaders from the Northeast came together at the University of Vermont to reflect on and strategize about their work.
By Maura Adams | February 08, 2019

In January, I was delighted to help nearly 60 wood heat leaders from my region come together at the University of Vermont to reflect on and strategize about our work. While the Northeast is full of wood heat activity, people working in this sector hadn’t convened for nearly two years, and a number of us felt the time was right to meet again. But instead of a conventional conference or expo, we opted for a small, one-evening, one-day event designed to foster conversation and problem-solving, and perhaps revive collaboration in our region.

The event featured the release of initial findings of a major UVM study on factors affecting decisions to purchase automated wood pellet heating systems. PhD candidate Laura Edling interviewed 60 stakeholders and the research team processed almost 700 surveys from people who installed pellet boilers, or considered installing but did not. Analysis is ongoing, so there’s much more to learn, but one striking finding is that the top reason people considered purchasing an automated wood heating system, by far, was “I wanted an alternative to fossil fuels.” That, along with many other insights from the research, will help us refine the messages we use when promoting wood heat.

Messaging was a consistent theme throughout the summit. Our introductory panelists commented on the disinformation, lack of knowledge, and fear of change that have hampered the wood heat market. Later discussions suggested that solutions include becoming much more vocal about positive wood heat stories, learning to deliver clear soundbites, and making the “warm and fuzzy” case for wood heat instead of technical. This approach is consistent with the “Feel Good Heat” campaign that the center has coordinated and will be expanding in 2019—look for an update in a future issue.

We also enjoyed a talk by Neil Harrison, founder of re:heat and director of the U.K.’s Wood Heat Association. He shared insights from the U.K.’s experience with large wood heat incentives, and told us he’s envious of all our trees and cold weather. He reminded us of the importance of installation standards and thoughtful incentive schemes to ensure robust, sustainable market development.

The summit’s success was due in large part to a strong planning team: 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.

The enthusiasm throughout the summit for improving our public communications and working closely together as wood heat leaders set an exciting tone for the year ahead. Participants discussed the possibility of reviving or reconfiguring a regional working group to continue timely and relevant conversations throughout the year. We look forward to being part of this work, and perhaps helping organize a similar event in 2020.

Author: Maura Adams
Program Director, Northern Forest Center