Wood Boiler Industry Fires Up

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Middlesex, Vt. — Renewable energy advocates are pushing a 21st-century upgrade to an ancient technology — wood heating — as a way to meet Vermont’s renewable energy goals while revitalizing the state’s struggling forest economy.

Susan Clark purchased a pellet boiler a few years ago to replace an aging oil furnace at her central Vermont home. At a news conference on Tuesday, Clark said the lower cost of wood pellets compared to the oil she had been using will eventually make up for the almost $20,000 price tag for the purchase and installation of the boiler.

Advanced wood heating systems — pellet boilers and stoves, and wood chip boilers — produce significantly less air pollution while generating heat more efficiently than their traditional wood stove counterparts. Clark said that heating with a wood pellet boiler has “all the advantages of oil in that a truck comes to your house twice a year and you’ve got fuel” with none of the dust associated with wood stoves.

She pointed to a hole on the side of her house where delivered pellets are sucked through a pipe into a storage tank in her basement. They are then automatically fed into the boiler to heat her house.

Although the new wood heating systems may not be any more complex to use than furnaces, they face many of the same problems that many early stage technologies do, including a higher upfront cost that can discourage purchase. Currently, there are fewer than 600 advanced wood heating systems installed in the state, according to Olivia Campbell Anderson, director of trade group Renewable Energy Vermont.

Campbell Anderson said at the press conference that nearly 80 percent of homes in Vermont are heated by oil or gas. To meet the state’s renewable energy goals, just shy of 40,000 efficient wood heating systems would need to be installed over the next seven years, she said.

When asked whether that was a “pie in the sky goal,” Campbell Anderson said a combination of incentives and a new tax break will encourage more Vermonters to switch to efficient wood heating.

“There is a plan toward this (goal),” she said, referring to the five-year action plan developed by wood energy proponents last year. “It’s accomplishable — the technology is here.”

The state’s Clean Energy Development Fund and Efficiency Vermont each now offer $3,000 rebates to homeowners who purchase automated wood pellet boilers — potentially shaving $6,000 off the up-front cost. Other utilities around the state, such as Washington Electric Co-op, have additional rebates for customers who purchase these units, Campbell Anderson said.

A rural economic development bill passed at the end of May includes a sales tax exemption for efficient wood heat boilers. Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington, said at the news conference that despite some opposition to the tax break, he and other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee pushed for its inclusion because they see promoting wood heat as an “economic development initiative” for rural Vermont.