By Jeff Rubin
Question: What is the most effective driver of green energy adoption? Answer: Knowing what your neighbor does. Some things are more readily known than others: each new solar array provides increased social proof, while each new pellet heating system remains hidden away in someone’s basement.
Invisibility isn’t the only barrier to market adoption for pellet furnaces. Homeowners have a range of aptitudes about what goes on down in the basement. Central heating systems are not a consumer item, and there’s too much technical jargon. (Do you know the difference between a boiler and a furnace?) There is also a widespread concern that we will cut down all the trees instead of there being an understanding of how the market for secondary lumber supports sustainable forests. (Most people don’t realize that most U.S. forests are not protected, and that over one third are in current use, and that secondary lumber is fully 70% of harvesting. More on this at http://sustainableheating.org/sustainable-forestry/). Then there is our well-worn reflex to complete the phrase “wood pellet” with “stove.” Wood pellet stoves and wood stoves play a vital role, especially when combined with cold climate heat pumps and tight building envelopes, but by far, the biggest opportunity in green energy is switching from an oil furnace to one that runs on wood pellets. Today we still have 60 million homes burning 3.6 billion gallons of heating oil annually.
From the mills that make the pellets, to the pneumatic trucks and storage bins that deliver entirely hands-free heating, to the amazing green-tech boilers and furnaces—the wood pellet central heating industry has had a fully functional infrastructure in New England for more than a decade. We don’t have a technology problem, but we do have some marketing challenges.
Behavioral economics has shown that we don’t always (or even often) behave in our rational, economic self-interest (yes, I know it’s hard to believe!). Instead we are driven to connect with tribes of people who believe what we believe. We seek to increase our social capital with our group by appearing insightful and altruistic. In other words, we are intrinsically driven to share new, relevant information with our networks. Wood pellet furnaces are exactly the kind of disruptive technology that should be organically contagious in this climate of environmental concern.
The good news is that we are making progress! Most northeastern states have financial incentives for pellet boilers/furnaces. Pellet heating systems qualify for low-cost green energy loans and can often be rolled into your mortgage payment. There’s plenty of information on the internet. One good place to start is http://sustainableheating.org/. We are at a critical moment in the story of climate change, and we can’t bend the curve unless we address pollution from heating our homes and businesses.
Jeff Rubin is Executive Director at Sustainable Heating Outreach & Education, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy 501(c)(3), sustainableheating.org.