April 14, and 15, 2011, I enjoyed the Heating the Northeast Conference so ably arranged by Charlie Niebling and his many peers in the wood pellet industry. The intent of the conference was to promote the pellet fuels industry in order to move the US toward a more diversified and sustainable heating model. To that end, the conference offered focused sessions and presentations from experts and non-experts. I learned from both sorts of presentation this year.

I learned enough for a separate blog about pellet quality and the establishment of a national standard. In this post, I’ll focus on the generous support of our Austrian friends in both this conference and the business development effort in general.

The Conference drew more than 500 people to Manchester, NH, for presentations, discussions, vendor booths, and operating hardware displays all associated with the pellet fuel industry.  By any measure the show was a success in energizing industry insiders.  It also provided opportunities for many to broaden their understanding of the industry and its challenges and opportunities, and give broad industry exposure to two Austrian visionaries who have, for the past two decades, traveled the road we’re beginning to travel.

Herbert Ortner, founder, owner and CEO of OkoFEN Pelletsheizung of Niederkappel, Austria, and Christiana Egger the Deputy Director of the Energy Agency of Upper Austria, generously shared insights intended to save our regional industry time and money by giving us the lessons they’ve learned and helping us skip over the mistakes they’ve made.

While Herbert and Christiana shared many important points, I was particularly interested in four of them:

  • the basic demand for predictable pellet quality,
  • the need for pellet storage and delivery systems that are pellet-friendly,
  • the fundamental importance of boiler reliability and ease of use, and
  • the substantial value of a broad industry coalition to promote growth in the industry.

A broad look at the existing pellet fuels marketplace in the Northeastern US suggests that we’ve learned a great deal, sometimes by trial and error and, occasionally by listening. Those of us in the boiler business experienced a steep learning curve with early appliances. We likely reinvented some of the successes and failures of our European friends After meeting those with deep experience and understanding of small biomass boilers, we were very ready to listen and learn.

Adoption of the most reliable and most convenient European equipment has given us products that are acceptable to even the most discerning American consumers.  At the same time, there exists in our marketplace less advanced boiler equipment requiring more user intervention for those who like to tinker and clean or for those needing a lower price point.

As an industry, we have much to learn from the Energy Agency of Upper Austria.  The Agency has pulled together a broad array of renewable energy companies to address the region’s clear need for renewable energy sources most readily available to them. Christiana Egger has become an international spokeswoman for the organization drawing substantial attention to the successes of the companies within this small Austrian region.

We should actively consider broadening the scope of our professional organizations from fuel specific to function specific.  There are many ways to heat homes and businesses in the Northeast that use renewable energy sources.  There is enthusiasm for growth and promotion in each of the professional communities  associated with every one of these energy sources.  The Austrians have found a way to leverage that collective energy into a dynamic organization that has served the region and the member companies.

One of the ways the Energy Agency has advanced its causes is through an extraordinary annual conference, World Sustainable Energy Days, in Wels, Austria, during the first week in March (also a topic for an upcoming post).  A notable difference between that conference and the Heating the Northeast Conference is the presence of the general public.  The Wels conference accompanies a very large “home show” bringing hundreds of vendors of all sorts of equipment and materials together and giving a large, appreciative public an opportunity to see and touch the equipment we are all trying to promote.  An active invitation to the public to see this equipment on a weekend day could add much to our fine, young conference.

I will address the pellet-related points in a separate posting in the near futures.

Dutch Dresser