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Pellet Shortage Affecting Consumers

Claremont — As winter lingers through March, some of those who heat with wood pellets are finding it difficult to obtain the fuel.

“I very seldom run out; this year I did,” said Julie Roberts, a Claremont resident who has been heating her home primarily with wood pellets for three years.

In the past, when LaValley Building Supply has had wood pellets in stock, they delivered the week she placed an order, she said. But this year she said she waited three weeks for a delivery.

Lucas Seaver, manager of LaValley’s West Lebanon store, said his store has been coping with the shortage for a few months, as demand this heating season has been higher than usual. Customers who may have burned five or six tons last year, are going through six or seven this year, Seaver estimated.

When shipments come in from LaValley’s supplier — New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, N.H. — they are distributed among the store’s ten Vermont and New Hampshire locations, including Claremont, where Roberts shops.

“We’re filling orders on a first come, first served basis,” said Seaver.

He attributed the increased demand to the long, cold winter and the high cost of other fuels.

“My propane bill went up three times in a month,” he said.

Though demand for wood pellets is strong, the price is still relatively low when compared with most other energy sources.

As of Feb. 24, bulk pellets in New Hampshire cost $14.71 per million BTU, the standard way to compare heating costs. That was second cheapest, behind natural gas at $13.68 per million BTU.

At LaValley, a 40-pound bag of wood pellets costs $5.38, which translates to $269 per ton, said Chuck Gardyne, a West Lebanon sales representative.

In Claremont, LaValley is no longer offering wood pellets in tons and they are restricting purchases to 5 bags per customer, said manager Bill Blewitt.

“It’s the first time we’ve had this kind of situation where there was a region-wide shortage,” he said.

In addition to LaValley, other stores around the Upper Valley are having trouble keeping wood pellets in stock. For example, the shelves are also empty at Welch’s Hardware in South Royalton.

“We actually sold our last bag of wood pellets a week ago,” said the store’s manager Bob Gray. “I feel terrible we aren’t able to get them; people depend on us for them.”

He anticipates two truckloads to be delivered by March 24, he said.

For various reasons, some in the Upper Valley have been protected from the shortage. In the case of the Kilton Public Library, the institution’s wood pellet boiler is offline due to a leak in the auger, which allowed moisture in, said Director Sean Fleming. Burning wet pellets produced smoke, so now the West Lebanon institution is relying on its geothermal system as its primary heat source.

“The pellet shortage hasn’t been affecting us at all,” said Fleming.

Lyme Green Heat’s customers have also been insulated from the dearth of pellets. Most of the company’s customers receive wood pellets for central heating systems in bulk, said CEO Morton Bailey. Because many of his customers do not have backup heating systems, he said he makes sure to have sufficient trucking and adequate storage to “take care of the swings” in availability, he said.

Among Bailey’s customers is Mascoma Valley Regional School District, which recently switched its four schools’ heating systems to pellets.

Roger Hutchins, facilities director at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, said the school hasn’t experienced any wood pellet shortage this winter.

They are on track to save 35 to 40 percent over oil, the school’s previous heat source, he said.

Similarly, Lyme Green Heat residential customer Kathy Waine of Thetford Center hasn’t felt the pellet shortage pinch. She placed an order for five tons of wood pellets three weeks ago and it arrived the next day, she said.

She’s not banking on that easy access in the future, however.

She said she plans to stock up earlier next year and stack bags in her mudroom, rather than wait for the mid-winter rush.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.