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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Group aims to heat more with wood

There’s a simple goal behind a new state subsidy of whole-house pellet boilers: Switch from an imported heating fuel to one that’s literally grown next door.

“The goal is to see if we can’t replace the oil delivery truck in New Hampshire with the wood pellet delivery truck,” said Barbara Bernstein, sustainable energy analyst with the state Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC recently announced a rebate program for home pellet boiler systems to heat entire homes. Using federal stimulus funds, it will rebate up to $6,000, or 30 percent of the total system and installation cost of a system, which can run $25,000 or so, if an existing system is replaced.

These systems are similar to oil- or gas-fueled heating systems that heat buildings with forced hot air or hot water except they burn wood pellets, typically delivered in 3-ton shipments.

They are not to be confused with wood pellet stoves, which radiate heat from one location inside a living space, or outdoor wood boilers, which burn cordwood rather than pellets and thus cannot have automated fuel feed.

Scott Nichols, president of BioheatUSA, a Lyme-based distributor of such systems, estimated that “100 or so” residential wood pellet central furnaces exist in the state, and at least three companies fill home pellet-storage silos. T

hese often deliver pellets from tankers that blow pellets through four-inch hoses into silos via an outdoor connector, just as oil is delivered into basement oil tanks through hoses from tankers.

In general, Nichols said, a wood-pellet furnace and boiler takes up slightly more room than the equivalent oil-fired machinery. Because wood pellets have much less energy density than oil, however, more must be stored: The industry standard is three tons, which stores approximately the same amount of heating energy as the standard 275-gallon oil tank but takes up three times as much floor space.

Nichols said an average New Hampshire home uses about 8 tons of wood pellets in a winter.

At current prices, wood pellets are almost one-third cheaper than heating oil.

Oil cost $2.82 per gallon at the end of the winter, which the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning said is the equivalent to wood pellets costing $330 per ton, although their cost is currently around $230 per ton.

The rebate program is an attempt to jump-start the wood pellet industry, which alternative-energy advocates said is an important part of any attempt by New Hampshire to reduce the state’s pollution and to develop wood industry jobs.

Northern New England uses more oil for heating than any other part of the country and also has a higher percentage of wooded land.

“The goal of the program is to help spark the growth of the wood-pellet central boiler/furnace market and bulk-fuel delivery,” said Laura Richardson, of the Office of Energy and Planning. “In order for that to happen, systems need to be convenient and transparent for the consumer, and the industry needs to feel secure knowing there is a viable market.”

The rebates are available for bulk-fuel fed, indoor wood- pellet central heating boilers and furnaces that become operational between April 14, 2010, and Feb. 15, 2012, or whenever funds run out.

Funds for this program are made available through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act’s state energy programs and the New Hampshire Office of Energy & Planning.

Wood pellets are often made of compacted sawdust, created from scrap, residue from logging or other types of less-marketable wood. They have much less moisture than cord wood and thus can burn hotter and produce much less ash.

The roll of wood and other types of biomass power in attempts to limit greenhouse gas emission has been the subject of debate recently because of concerns that it will lead to levels of forest destruction, reducing woodland’s ability to absorb CO2. Massachusetts is looking to tighten its biomass power rules as a result.

Much of that concern, however, deals with burning wood to create electricity, a less efficient process than burning it for heat.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or