By Michael Daniels
The Bethel Citizen

TIME-HONORED HEATING SOURCE GOES HIGH TECH— Photo by Michael Daniels At last week’s workshop on wood-pellet furnaces, Eric Legacy of Bosch Thermotechnologies diagrams the range of water temperatures (vertical axis) maintained in the boiler by the Janfire NH (“no hands”) burner over the range of outside temperatures (horizontal axis). The modulating burner keeps the boiler temperatures in the band surrounding the optimal curve (center diagonal line). The burner itself (left foreground) is the result of two decades of evolution in pellet-fuel burning technology in central Sweden. This particular burner is microprocessor controlled and has been designed to be very tolerant of fuel quality. Nonetheless, MESys is specifying premium-grade pellets for these systems, Dutch Dresser said, in order to assure homeowners high efficiency and very little ash.

“It’s become a very busy, busy world — the demand for this is nuts,” said Dutch Dresser, one of three local partners in the Maine Energy Systems, the Bethel-based energy start-up firm.

“Here it is July. And it’s over 80 degrees out. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s going to be like in October,” Dresser said.

He was speaking Friday to more than a dozen heating-system contractors and installers, at the start of a crammed, day-long session on the technology, equipment and infrastructure that makes wood-pellet heat an increasingly attractive — and economical — home-heating option.

His audience came from across northern New Eng-land, and as far away as Canada’s Northwest Terri-tory.

Last week’s session was the fourth MESys has held in the former GAMM building at the Bethel Airport Industrial Park (and took place the day after Bethel voters cleared the way for the town to sell the building to MESys, should the company eventually decide to pursue that option.)

Banking on pellets

Dresser’s two MESys partners are Les Otten, former chairman of the American Skiing Company and later a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, and Bill Strauss of Albany Township, president of FutureMetrics, a financial forecasting firm,

The company already has 300 orders for its wood-pellet boilers, even though the MESys hasn’t taken delivery of its first shipment

That shipment is cur-rently somewhere on the North Atlantic, Boston bound.

Installation of the furnaces in customers’ homes is expected to begin within a month, and by the onset of heating season MESys plans to have 500 units up and running.

The boilers themselves are being manufactured by Bosch Thermotechnologies, a division of the large German appliance maker.

To fuel them, MESys is arranging for a fleet of specially equipped trucks to make home deliveries of the pellets, which will be come from mills in Maine, New Hampshire and Quebec.

Homeowners will receive deliveries (about two a year, Dresser estimates) of pellets, which will be pumped into a basement bin that can hold four tons.

Otten, who has a pellet boiler in his home in Greenwood, said it works much like existing forced-water heat systems, except the burner is fueled with wood pellets rather than oil or natural gas.

The pellets are then carried automatically from the bin to the boiler, where they are fed in at a micro-processor-controlled rate and burned to heat water, which is in turn circulated to heat the house.

MESys’ goal is to convert 10 percent (more than 40,000) of Maine oil-heated homes in the next five to seven years, and to eventually expand throughout New England and into New York.

Dresser told last week’s training session that currently 80 percent of the #2 heating oil burned in this country is burned in northern New England, and in Maine four out of homes burn that oil — which, like all petroleum products, is becoming increasingly expensive.

“Maine is not a wealthy state,” he said, “yet last winter $1.4 billion was spent on heating oil in the state of Maine, and this year projects to be $400 million worse. That’s close to $2 billion for heating oil.”

Otten said the financial impact on the state could be devastating.

“That’s why you have to use the word ‘crisis’ when you think about this stuff,” he said.

Proven track record

Europeans have long used wood pellets to heat their homes..

“This is not new technology,” Dresser said, “and we haven’t invented anything, but we have taken a look at what goes on in Europe, and we’ve discovered that central heating with wood pellets is very common in central Europe and Scandinavia, and has been for two decades.”

Banks and insurers already lined up

But however tested the technology might be, using wood- pellets as a primary home-heating source is unlikely to catch on here unless the economics work.

Dresser believes the actual numbers will convince not only homeowners, but also banks.

“These are not inexpensive products to install,” he said. “They’ll run to $12,000 to $15,000 in many cases, and folks needed to be able to afford them.”

But heat from wood pellets currently costs only 40 percent per BTU what oil heat costs.

So, Dresser said, “even after paying for the amortization of a loan of that magnitude, these will save people money — cash money in their hands — even at the [oil] prices of March in this year.”

And despite the crumbling mortgage market, the money for the conversion is available.

“We have a bank that has put aside $50 million to help people in the states of Maine and New Hampshire,” Dresser said.

And insurance companies — which were initially leery of wood as a primary source of home heat — have also come aboard.

MESys built its case for the safety of wood-pellet heat by pointing to its European track record, Dresser said.

“And we quickly gathered more than a half dozen significant underwriters who said: ‘Yeah, this will work as a primary heat source and we’ll write insurance on those houses.’”

Otten, who also heads Gov. John Baldacci’s Alternative Energy Task Force, is putting up to $10 million of his own money behind MESys.

He said he is convinced the long-term economics of high-tech wood heating work in the homeowner’s — and Maine’s — favor.

”What’s more volatile?” he said. “Cutting a tree in the woods or pumping oil out of the ground?”

Much more information on wood-pellet heating, as well as a savings calculator (savings, that is, of both money and net carbon emissions) can be found at the MESys website: maineenergysystems.com.