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Saving environment, money

Wood pellets: Renewable resource helps feed the local economy

The leaves have changed, the night is cool and people have turned their thermostats up. Or, they may be hauling out bags full of compressed wood pellets.

Charlie Niebling, general manager of New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, said in a recent interview at the pellet manufacturing company that this is the time of year when the company is unable to keep any inventory. As soon as the pellets are bagged, they are put onto to trucks for transport to local municipalities, schools and homes that use wood pellets as a heat source. One such customer is Bonnie Myers of New Ipswich.

When she and her husband were building their house about 12 years ago, they didn’t know much about wood pellets, and decided to go with a gas heating system, said Myers. But after four years, high fuel prices had them looking in another direction: wood pellets. The couple picked out a large Harmon stove to supplement their heating system about eight years ago, and have been reaping the benefits ever since, she said. Even though they still use gas and have the stove as a supplement, they still save about $1,500 a year in heating costs, she said.

The benefits

There are several economic and environmental reasons to invest in a wood pellet heating system, whether it’s a stove or a pellet boiler. Ninety percent of people that make the switch, Niebling said, have financial concerns on their minds. Wood pellets are hundreds of dollars a year cheaper than oil and propane, which are the most common heating options. Also, the price for pellets is relatively stable, whereas the cost of propane and oil can fluctuate wildly from year to year.

“From one heating season to another, it’s very predictable,” said Niebling about the price of wood pellets. “That volatility is often more troubling than actual cost to the consumer, because they have to budget.”

Plus, wood is a renewable resource, if it’s managed properly. Wood pellets can also make use of wood that would otherwise be unusable — those small crooked trees that most businesses can’t work with . The use of those trees can lend to more responsible forestry. New England Wood Pellet also gets supplies from other lumber retailers that provide scrap wood and sawdust that retailers don’t use . Plus, it’s a low carbon intensity fuel source, and doesn’t contain sulphur, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Important from a business and economic standpoint, Niebling added, is that the economy generated from wood pellets stays in New Hampshire. The wood is produced here, and the pellets and stoves are sold here. Money paid for oil and gas goes out of the state.

“When you buy wood, your fuel dollar stays in the local economy,” said Niebling.

As a homeowner that uses one, said Myers, one of the best benefits is that the wood pellet stove her family uses heats the whole house more evenly than her past heating systems. Gas heat kicks in once the temperature has dropped past a certain point, which leads to fluctuating temperatures and wasted heat, she said, where the pellet stove keeps the whole house at a comfortable temperature.

The cons

Wood pellets aren’t a perfect source of heat, however, said Niebling. First, pellet stoves require electricity to run, so when the power goes out, so does the stove. That’s true of oil and gas heat as well, though, noted Niebling. And newer pellet stoves come with a battery pack that allow the stove to continue running for up to a day without electricity, which allows for heat through the majority of winter storms.

It’s also a more work-intensive option than people who heat with oil or propane may be used to, said Niebling. Like any home with a fireplace, the pellet stove has to be tended to — pellets must be added and the ash removed. Boilers can be built-in systems that are getting closer to needing no maintenance, he said, with the ability to feed from an attached silo that stores pellets, which can be filled semi-regularly. As the technology improves, there is less cleaning out needed, too, he said, but for those uninterested in a system that has to be maintained, any solid-burning heater may be too much effort.

Myers noted that she doesn’t really mind the extra work that goes into maintaining the stove. More to the point, she said, is that not every home will have the storage capacity to keep the wood pellets to get you through the winter. For her family, she said, they keep the pellets in the garage, and it’s just a matter of bringing them in as needed. Also, you have to have the right spot in your home to put a pellet stove, which aren’t small, and need to be placed in a good spot for heat distribution.

More significant for homeowners, Niebling said, is the initial cost. “That’s the kicker,” he said.

The most common reason to switch to pellet heat is because it’s a cheaper option on a year-to-year basis than either oil or propane. But that benefit has to be paid for up-front. A pellet stove can run from $2,500 to $3,500, or $4,000 installed, he said. The heat savings can help pay that off in about two years, on average, he said. But a boiler can cost between $15,000 and $25,000 — between two and three times the installation cost for an oil or gas boiler.

“That cost will come down as technology improves, but it will never be as cheap as oil or propane,” said Niebling, when it comes to up-front costs. Still, he said, that cost has about a five to eight year payback, and the life of the boiler is between 25 and 30 years, so the savings are still significant in the long run. Often new home builders, or people facing a boiler replacement, will consider pellet because the cost will be there anyway. Currently, Niebling noted, the state has a rebate that will pay up to 30 percent of the cost of installing a pellet boiler, up to $6,000, which may help soften the initial cost.

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