Jessie Haas and G.E.T. staff
Wood pellets save you money, but are they really all that green? The answer in the Northeast is: yes.
It’s partly a matter of geography. Europe destroyed most of its forests centuries ago. Now, with laws intended to reduce their use of coal in power plants, they are burning pellets from clearcut industrial monoculture plantations in the southeastern United States. Unsurprisingly, that model has not proved sustainable.
But forestry looks very different here in the Northeast. The wood used in pellets comes from a variety of sources. Some is sawdust from lumber mills and furniture manufacturers. Some pellets are made from wood chips. But much of the wood for pellets is cut for the purpose from areas in the many thousands of acres managed under forest stewardship plans overseen by state foresters, the Forest Stewardship Council, or other certifiers. The wood is harvested by local loggers sustainably in ways that protect wildlife habitat. Properly tended, our mixed forests regenerate, and the inventory is growing.
Heating with wood pellets works within the natural forest carbon cycle, while fossil fuels release ancient carbon into the atmosphere. Pellets mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and harmful pollutants such as CO₂, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. They also emit less particulates than most wood stoves. And pellet proponents point to reduced emissions of methane compared to natural rotting of dead wood in forests.
Companies that sell pellets are very aware of other types of good environmental practice. Pellet mills are geographically dispersed, reducing emissions associated with transporting the pellets. Similarly, dealers and manufacturers typically deliver only to customers within a certain range of their warehouses.
Wood pellets are dense and have a low moisture content. This means more of the energy from combustion will go toward heating the building, rather than boiling off the water content. They can be burned with a very high combustion efficiency in boilers and furnaces specifically designed for them. All brands have similar moisture content of around 8%. The higher the energy content (BTUs per pound), the hotter the burn. Numbers should be around 8,000 BTU per pound or higher.
For a consumer, some of the most important considerations for buying wood pellets may be where they were made, what percentage is from hard or soft wood, and the percentage of ash. Low ash content reduces waste and maintenance. A ton of pellets with 0.3% ash content will produce six pounds of ash; with 1% it will produce 20 pounds.
Generally, it does not matter whether you burn hardwood or softwood pellets. Due to their compression, they are about equally dense. Softwoods can actually have 10-20% more BTUs by weight, due to their resin content. Some manufacturers use a mix of both, and some produce a ‘regular’ and a ‘premium’ grade pellet, but the grades are not standardized. A close read of the bag may reveal contents such as paper, cardboard, glue and bark, all of which burn less hot and will be less efficient in your stove; those are not generally found in premium pellets.
People often ask why a ton of wood pellets seems expensive compared to cord wood. One important reason is that fresh wood chips contain up to 50% moisture and the pellet manufacturers have to drive off most of that moisture. This uses energy and significantly reduces weight.
Many people buy pellets in 40-pound plastic bags, but it is possible to choose bagless bulk delivery. To do that you can build or buy an indoor or outdoor storage bin. A bulk fuel company delivers to you two or three times a year, just as the heating oil company does.
Several local companies supply high-end boilers, usually made in Europe, which offer the consumer an experience similar to an oil furnace: automatic heat that’s easy to regulate, without lifting. For example, Pellergy LLC, a Vermont company, has been selling wood pellet burners, boilers, and storage units since 2006. In 2013 they began importing Windhager BioWin boilers made in Austria. These extremely advanced boilers are thermostatically controlled and when coupled with bulk wood pellet storage can provide homeowners with months of hands-free, maintenance-free renewable heating. These boilers offer fully automatic ash removal and a dual ignition system for greater reliability. They come with standard North American wiring. Pellergy trains local home heating technicians to install and service these central heating systems and also to meet the needs for custom or semi-custom design. Pellergy’s website is pellergy.com.
Froling Energy of Peterborough, NH, also installs and services pellet boiler systems. Froling emphasizes the difference between its systems and the more familiar pellet stoves. “Pellet stoves are semi-automatic space heaters. Pellet boilers are automatic, just like oil and propane boilers, and with burn efficiencies and particulate emissions that are quite comparable.” Some can be hooked into your home’s existing heat distribution system, be it hot water or hot air. The Froling website is frolingenergy.com.
Froling Energy also produces Precision Dry Chips, or PDCs, locally-sourced wood chips that are dried to 25% moisture content and are screened to exclude oversized chunks that could clog boiler feeding systems. PDCs can be burned in dual-fuel boilers which can also burn pellets. These boilers are used in commercial buildings, schools, factories, and other large buildings. Dried wood chip boilers are large and are ideal in buildings where annual consumption would exceed 20,000 gallons of oil. (See the October 2021 issue of Green Energy Times for more information).
TARM Biomass is another local supplier of high-efficiency wood-burning boilers manufactured in Germany by Fröling, along with heating units from a number of other companies. They offer pellet boiler heating systems for homes as well as commercial-scale wood chip boiler systems. They have systems for use with pellets, chips, and cord wood.
Like other companies in the wood heating business, TARM is very conscientious about environmental issues and sustainability. They make this statement at their website: “We know that what we do is only sustainable if our products burn cleanly and operate efficiently, cost little to operate, and exceed our customer’s expectations. Our team encourages a professional installation by trained dealers because we know that quality starts with the equipment and ends with the experience. Like you, we are Feeling Good About Wood.” TARM is based in Orford, New Hampshire. Its website is woodboilers.com.
Following harvest, wood products may come under the management of a company like Cousineau Forest Products of Henniker, New Hampshire, a major broker of wood chips and other biomass fuels. Cousineau picks up and trucks wood products to users to be turned into electricity, paper, Masonite (or hardboard siding and similar products) and MDF (medium density fiberboard), and bark mulch, as well as chips and pellets for heating, barbecuing, and animal bedding.
Cousineau says, “We provide a top-quality service to the producers of these raw materials by handling the trucking and providing the best available markets for the highest dollar. We also provide an end user service for these raw materials as well, by providing them with a reliable supply of the products they need to run their businesses.” The Cousineau Forest Products’ website is cousineauforestproducts.com.
Bourne’s Energy is the exclusive dealer of bulk wood pellets for the Vermont Wood Pellet Company. Jim Kurrle Senior Manager at Bourne’s Energy specializing in renewable fuels states, “Our relationship with Vermont Wood Pellet Company is one we are particularly proud of because of the direct impact it has on Vermont and our environment. The entire chain for this product line is Vermont made. The wood is harvested in Vermont, by Vermont loggers and Vermont truckers. Pellets are made by Vermont Wood Pellet Company in North Clarendon before making their way to Bourne’s Energy’s dedicated pellet facility in North Hyde Park. Our company has a 75-year history rooted here in Vermont and is still owned and operated by the Bourne’s family. Our team is all local, which means your pellets are delivered to you by someone who could well be your neighbor. It’s a complete circle serving Vermont every step of the way.”
Bourne’s Energy offers bagged and bulk pellets and delivers bagged pellets throughout Northern and Central Vermont and bulk pellets across the entire state. Pellets can also be picked up at 87 Main St. Barre, VT. In addition to pellets, Bourne’s Energy also offers bulk pellet storage bins with options for indoor and outdoor storage. A program through the Renewable Energy Resource Center offers customers purchasing a new pellet storage bin a voucher that will cover up to $3,000 or 85%, whichever is less, of the total bin and materials cost. Bourne Energy has a number of outlets in Vermont. Their website is bournesenergy.com.
Now is the best time of the year to purchase wood pellets. We advise readers to start their search for suppliers by contacting reliable companies that are near their homes.
Jessie Haas lives in a 450 square foot off-grid cabin with husband Michael J. Daley. She is the author of over 40 books, most recently The Hungry Place.