(Host) With heating oil prices skyrocketing, many people are looking at alternative, less costly ways to heat their homes.
Among the most popular in this part of the country are wood pellet stoves and furnaces. They’re easier to operate and pollute less than traditional wood stoves.
But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports pellets and stoves are increasingly hard to come by.
(Keck) At the Stove Depot in North Clarendon they’ve been selling wood pellet stoves and furnaces for ten years. But manager Center Merrill says this year, demand has gone through the roof.
(Merrill) "We are talking to 40-50 people a day in here. And on a Saturday it’s nothing to see 150 people in here looking at stoves.”
(Keck) “What are they telling you? Why are they so interested?”
(Merrill) “Because they just cannot afford their fuel bill. Their pre-buy has come in and they just cannot come up with $5,000 to $6,000, whatever it’s going to cost them for their fuel for one year."
(Keck) Cindy Legg of West Pawlet found herself in exactly that situation.
(Legg) "Yeah – I’m a school bus driver – $6,000 – that’s half of what I make in a year. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know."
(Keck) Legg says a year’s worth of wood pellets would cost less than $1,000. Add $2,000 to $4,000 to install a new stove, and Legg says it seemed like a great deal. Until she tried to buy one. At the Stove Depot, for instance, the waiting list for a stove is 75 names long.
Wood pellets are in short supply, as well. Charlie Niebling is general manager of New England Wood Pellets in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
(Niebling) "If we could have shipped everything that’s being asked of us right now, our sales over the last several months would have increased by 300-400 percent.”
(Keck) Most pellets are made from wood byproducts like sawdust and chips. Because of the current slump in construction, less is available. But Niebling says even with plentiful supplies, they simply can’t make pellets any faster. So, many retailers are having to truck in supplies from the Midwest and Canada, which will boost prices.
(Niebling) "It’s not good not to meet demand. Right now, that’s not just true of pellet fuel, it’s true of cord wood, if you’re trying to go out and find dry firewood. It’s true of other renewable energy technologies – like solar photovoltaic or solar hot water systems – also in very, very high demand and in tight supply."
(Keck) Pellergy LLC is a new Montpelier company hoping to take advantage of the growing interest in pellet fuels. General Manager Andy Boutin says a high quality wood pellet furnace costs about $10,000 installed. Boutin says his company can retrofit an existing oil burning furnace to burn any type of pellets for about $4,000.
(Boutin) "Grass is seen as the next big fuel. One acre of sustainably forested northern woodlands can give you about one ton of pellets per year. They estimate that one acre of grassland can give you between 5 and 13 tons per year of pelletized fuel products.”
(Keck) Boutin says Pellergy has already received hundreds of calls from people who want to convert their furnace and he says they hope to begin installations next month. But Boutin cautions that pellet appliances do take some work. For a stand-alone stove, he says, you usually need to feed the hopper every 24 hours. With a furnace, the time between refueling can be up to a week, but you also need to clean the chamber.
(Boutin) "It’s not going to be: Set the thermostat and forget about it. People are going to get to know their heating systems a lot more than they are today. There’s going to be an increased consciousness about the amount of fuel you’re using and where that fuel comes from."
(Keck) Something Boutin says would actually be a good thing.
For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.