PARIS – With a substantial increase in fuel costs in 2008, Oxford County commissioners discussed the possibility of switching to a wood pellet system to heat the county building on Tuesday.

Commissioners discussed the idea with Les Otten, who founded Maine Energy Systems in Bethel last year. Otten said the company supplies wood pellets and equipment and aims to reduce heating costs and the output of greenhouse gases, but does not install systems.

“There are commercial-sized systems that you could put in,” Otten said.

He told the commissioners that they’d have to invest in removing the existing heating system at the county offices and installing a new one. He said 10 tons of pellets is equal to about 1,200 gallons of heating oil, and that the two systems are “within pennies” of each other at current prices. However, he likened the process to buying insurance.

“How long do you think that oil prices are going to stay at $2 a gallon?” Otten asked.

According to the 2009 county budget, the estimated fuel costs for the county offices in 2008 came to $54,662, while only $38,000 had been budgeted. This year, commissioners approved $65,686 for fuel at the county offices.

“What we’re trying to do is look down the road,” said Commissioner Caldwell Jackson, who has expressed interest in switching the county to a wood pellet system. “Ten years down the road, fuel’s not going to be $1.89 a gallon.”

Otten said about 400,000 tons of pellets are made in Maine, with a plant in Berlin, N.H., aiming at producing an additional 200,000 tons. He said he was appearing at the meeting in an advisory capacity.

“I’m not here selling a product,” he said.

Otten also encouraged commissioners to look at other alternative fuel sources, such as geothermal, wind or solar systems. He said the county offices are best suited for geothermal or wood pellet systems.

“It can’t be all wood, just as it shouldn’t have been all oil,” he said.

Otten said the county may be able to pursue stimulus dollars for alternative energy from President Barack Obama’s administration.

Earlier this month, commissioners heard a presentation from John Sheehan of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. Sheehan said the county is eligible for the Rural Energy for America program, in which the USDA would fund up to 25 percent of costs for renewable energy projects.

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