Josh Goodfellow bought a pellet stove last year.

“Wicked happy ’bout it,” said the Lewiston man.

He figures he saved more than $500 last heating season — a good way toward paying off his new stove.

When No. 2 heating oil hit $4.26 a gallon, Rich St. John decided that was it.

He pulled the oil furnace from his Harrison log home in 2009 and installed a wood-pellet boiler, 30 solar tubes for water heat and, later, a small propane furnace as backup.

“Twice a week when I fill the hopper on my boiler, I smile the whole time,” St. John said. “I am not at the mercy of the oil company.”

Last winter, when Rob Parsons priced a new furnace, propane won over a new oil-fired unit. The move even saved him the cost of upgrading the chimney in his 1836 Poland farmhouse.

“The cleanliness, the no-noise, the lack of maintenance required — the system is unbelievable,” Parsons said.

Oil’s tight grip on Maine is getting a little looser.

For the first time in a long time, fewer than 70 percent of Maine homes rely on heating oil.

New numbers due out Thursday from the U.S. Census might show that trend picking up steam.

As temperatures dip and more people reach for the thermostat, figures already show more Mainers are using wood and fewer are burning oil. And oil prices this winter? Well, don’t blink.

Even though Maine gets most of its supply from Canada, “any unrest in any country causes the price to fluctuate,” said Lisa J. Smith, who tracks prices for the Governor’s Energy Office.

“China’s economy doesn’t grow as quickly and the price fluctuates,” she said. “Anybody blinks and the global price of oil changes.”

Smith released figures Tuesday that showed a statewide average of $3.56 per gallon for No. 2 heating oil, nearly 20 cents lower than at the start of the last heating season but double a decade ago.

Not so long ago, 80 percent of Maine homes relied on oil, making it the most heating-oil-dependent state in the country. (New Hampshire and Vermont were next-closest, at 58 percent, in the 2000 Census.)

While Maine still hasn’t lost that top-ranked spot in the country, today, 69 percent of Maine homes use oil as a primary heating source, Smith said. It hasn’t been that low since 1990.

As oil’s popularity ebbs, wood is on the rise: One national trade group estimated that one of every eight pellet stoves sold in the U.S. last year was bought in Maine. The number of homes burning pellets or cord wood has doubled in a decade.

“Mainers are resourceful, and to the degree they can, they’re going to look for alternatives,” Smith said.

‘Early adopters’

Four years ago, Tim Heutz converted the Heutz Oil office headquarters in Lewiston to a pellet boiler.

His family has sold heating oil for 80 years and wood pellets for five. Heutz Premium Pellet Systems owns one of the few residential pellet delivery trucks in Maine. Its delivered price has held steady for three years, $249 a ton. (A ton of pellet heat converts to about 120 gallons of oil heat.)

“That is very refreshing to people used to volatility in oil, gas, propane,” said Heutz, vice president of the oil company and president of the pellet company. “It’s really something that you can plan for. “

Bill Bell, executive director of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association, said dealers in the state have sold about 200 pellet boilers a year, though he expects that to more than double to 500 next year.

Self-feeding systems with basement storage bins run between $15,000 and $20,000 installed; less expensive models must be hand-fed every few days.

“It’s caught on among the people who we call the ‘early adopters,’ the same people who buy Prius cars when they first come to market,” Bell said.

Pellet stoves, meanwhile, are selling by the thousands. The U.S. Hearth and Patio Association estimated that 6,000 of the 48,000 pellet stoves sold nationwide in 2012 were sold in Maine.

Twelve percent of Maine homes now burn wood as the primary heat source, up from 6.4 percent a decade ago.

Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, said no one tracks the amount of firewood sold in Maine. It’s frequently cut by logging companies who sell to pulp mills and homeowners — but given the price of oil, it makes sense that the demand has gone up.

“There’s a convenience factor, or inconvenience factor, with wood that doesn’t come with heating oil,” Doak said. “It’s always a little bit better deal because of that.”

He suspects supplies might be a little tight this fall because summer rain made harvesting a slow slog.

The state’s four pellet mills — in Strong, Corinth, Athens and Ashland — don’t appear to have been dinged by the weather, Bell said. “The mill in Athens has been running virtually around the clock filling orders throughout New England.”

Trends, more to come

The slow move to alternative heat has come as Mainers have pulled way back on heating oil use.

During the peak, probably 10 years ago, 450 million gallons sold each year in the state, said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, which promotes fuel oil, liquid bio-fuels and propane.

More recently, that’s hovered between 250 million and 280 million gallons.

“Eighty percent of people used heating oil because they found it to be a great value,” Py said. “If it works well, and you really like it, then people stay with it. Over the past six, seven years some price issues started to happen which encouraged folks to look elsewhere. . . . The folks who simply sold heating oil saw this coming years ago.”

Businesses diversified into propane or pellets, “whatever the consumer wants,” he said. “The most important thing that drives consumer decisions is the price.”

People are conserving more and weatherizing homes. New oil-heat boilers are more efficient, he said, and more people like Goodfellow in Lewiston are supplementing — some wood, some oil.

Heutz has noticed many commercial users in Lewiston-Auburn switching to natural gas, another lower-cost alternative, but it’s not for everyone.

“Despite the fact that there’s natural gas being installed at an unprecedented rate in the state now, most areas of the state are never going to see piped natural gas. They’re just too rural,” Smith said. “An option like pellet stoves or air-source heat pumps are going to be the options for these rural households to get their energy costs under control.”

This is the first year the Governor’s Energy Office has tracked heating oil prices the entire year. They dipped to a statewide average low of $3.37 in June.

Last winter’s average high hit $3.84 per gallon.

“The price the last two years has peaked in mid-February to the first week in March, when you’re going to see your highest prices, at least if it continues on this trend,” Smith said.

Py said he had heard of fewer homeowners locking in prices for this coming winter than in winters past. They may be taking comfort in prices having dropped more this summer than they did last summer.

Smith, who bases her surveys on calls to 50 oil dealers around the state, said prices in northern Maine tend to run high. There’s less competition and it costs more to move oil farther. Western Maine often benefits from more cross-border competition from New Hampshire.

She encouraged homeowners to look into heating alternatives any time of year.

The state’s willing to help: Efficiency Maine will soon launch a new residential heating financial incentive program, she said, designed to encourage people to move from oil. It was part of an energy bill passed by the Legislature last spring and promoted by Gov. Paul LePage. A spokesman said details weren’t yet ready.

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