Winter Brings Industry Boosts

Maine Pellet Fuels Association Executive Director Bill Bell weighs in on winter sales trends and Maine pellet policy developments.
By Bill Bell | January 26, 2014

Old Man Winter is creator of the best incentives. Nothing drives pellet sales like weekly snow dumps, an ice storm and now a record cold snap (minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit as I write). Visits to big box retailers show bagged pellets moving out the doors as quickly as possible, on the shoulders of big men or in carts pushed by strong women, being dropped into pickup boxes and car trunks. At Walmart, bags of pellets are $3.90! Can’t beat it with a stick. 

Our members are happily reciting the “be careful what you wish for” maxim. A pellet manufacturer in northern Maine said, “After making pellets all summer, back in October I thought I had overdone it. Now I wish I had made even more.” A fuel distributor who added pellets to his product line stated, “Last year, I was only running my new pellet truck part of the time, and wondering. Now my driver’s out straight-scheduling deliveries to keep up with my customers—a major challenge.” 

To top it off, our multiyear investment of time at the state capitol just came home. In September, our state’s energy agency, Efficiency Maine, had funded 50 grants of $5,000 each to homeowners installing pellet-fueled or geothermal central heating. As previously reported, our customers grabbed all but three of the slots within 48 hours of the announcement. Now, having surveyed program results, Efficiency Maine has just lifted the $250,000 total cap. Now all homeowners who qualify—and most do—can obtain the same $5,000 rebate for installation of a bulk-delivered pellet boiler system. The incentive is to last “until the Home Energy Savings Program funds are exhausted,” in the words of the Efficiency Maine announcement.     

It now becomes our association’s job to work with Maine’s governor and legislature to see that the funding stream is maintained, at least until financial incentives are no longer needed to introduce our proven technology to homeowners. 

We’re not yet at the promised land. Not hardly. We’re not even doing as well as neighboring New Hampshire, where thermal heat is being added to the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and where incentives for putting pellet boilers into commercial locations were just announced, adding to the state’s well-established incentives for residential pellet heat. Maine’s paper industry continues to consume huge amounts of forest fiber—which is a good thing—making sourcing pellet wood a continued challenge. In fact, it is unofficially reported that one of Maine’s four pellet mills is changing ownership to a large logging firm which, like the successful Maine Woods Pellet Co./Linkletter logging firm in Athens, Maine, will have the advantage of having its own fiber.    

Regulatory issues are always there, of course. The Maine Fuel Board has now reversed its earlier refusal to extend its pilot program which allows one firm some considerable flexibility in meeting the licensure requirement for pellet boiler installers. In addition, the board has created a broad-based pellet boiler group to review the entire set of regulations, which were written before our industry was even on the map. The recent first meeting of this pellet boiler group quickly reached consensus that the existing regulations and installer licensing provisions are almost totally irrelevant. To quote the official meeting summary, “The group members discussed the contents of the board’s rules, which …have very little to do with the installation of pellet boilers.” A major and time-consuming rewrite appears necessary. 

In the meantime, let it snow!

Author: Bill Bell
Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association