STRONG — Facility managers and municipalities tired of seeing their energy dollars leaving the state are looking for answers.

Those at the Maine Pellet Summit on Saturday said costs to heat and cool their buildings take a larger chunk each year from their increasingly tight budgets. They also would like to find fuel sources and equipment that are environmentally friendly and low-maintenance. The answer, both literally and figuratively, is in their backyards, but getting support to convert from fossil fuel to biomass can be a hard-fought battle.

Speakers at the Western Maine Community Action Housing and Energy Services’ event addressed many of the challenges and benefits of saying goodbye to fossil fuel and embracing wood heat. Since residential pellet stoves have become commonplace, taxpayers are hearing from their neighbors that heating with wood is clean, safe, less expensive and makes sense.

European countries have used biomass heating and cooling for years, because they have fewer resources and always have had to conserve energy. With the rising prices of oil and the realization that oil won’t be around forever, more and more U.S. communities are beginning to make the change to biomass.

Fuels include wood, corn, grass, manure or other biodegradable fuel sources. Wood pellets are most readily available in Maine and, for the environmentally conscious, there’s an added bonus. After the pellets burn, only recyclable ash remains because drying the wood reduces the moisture content from 42 percent to 5 percent.

“People usually put wood ash on their gardens, because it’s high in potassium,” said Jeff Allen, manager of Geneva Wood Fuels pellet mill in Strong.

The town of Strong bought a Hamont CATfire boiler from Dan Worcester, Washington-based Northline Energy’s local distributor. A $25,000 wood-to-energy grant from the Maine Department of Conservation paid for half of the cost, and taxpayers appropriated the rest.

Although the town has not used the boiler through a full winter, the conversion is showing a positive financial return.

“We compared the costs to heat our Town Office with oil for three months and with pellets for the same three months,” Selectman Milt Baston said. “We paid $4,316 for oil and $2,234 for pellets, so we cut our costs in half.”

Since the pellet mill is across the street, town officials can budget more confidently. The mill employs 20 people and contributes about $72,000 in taxes to the town. Local loggers sell wood to the mill, so the economy benefits.

Four of the five schools in the district have converted to pellet boilers, and those reduced heating costs have been one of the few bright spots in the Western Maine school system’s budget.

Saturday’s presenters included commercial vendors, municipalities and school systems, and the audience was a mix of town officials, facilities managers and citizens who wanted to know more about switching to pellet heat.

According to Tom Wood, the Maine Forest Service senior planner who helped Strong’s Energy Team complete the project, as much as 85 percent of the money spent on oil leaves the state immediately.

If the cost to heat with wood is half that of heating with oil, why is there any hesitation?

“Maine people are frugal, and they want to see who else is using this technology before they’ll buy into it,” said Mike McCormick, principal of the McCormick Energy group, based in Dexter.

The biomass heating concept is not new, he said. Romans used the green technology to heat water and warm their greenhouses. A system in France has been in continuous operation since the 14th century, he said, and recently, one of Maine’s largest facilities joined the list of converts.

“The Togus VA just went online with a wood-fired application using biomass,” McCormick said.

Safety is another factor, because oil spills are costly. In March 2011, about 2,000 gallons of heating oil spilled out of an indoor tank at Fairfield Primary School. The 10,000-gallon tank had been overfilled over the weekend, but the spill wasn’t discovered until Monday morning. It cost about $70,000 to clean up the oil spill that closed the school for two weeks. That bill was covered by SAD 49’s insurance company, so taxpayers weren’t charged.

Dana Doran, director of the Kennebec Valley Community College’s Energy Programs, said the new renewable energy technology courses cover five disciplines: biomass solid fuel, geothermal heating and cooling, small wind systems, solar heating and solar photovoltaic systems.

“We have students who are licensed to work on oil burners or plumbing and have the experience to transition into these fields,” he said. “Some of our students are right out of high school and others have been working in their fields for years.”

Sponsors for the event included the Opportunity Center of Northern Franklin County, Franklin Savings Bank, Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston and Geneva Wood Fuels.


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