Berlin homeowners reaping benefits of heating switch
From the New Hampshire Union Leader, 2012-06-25

BERLIN — A Berlin homeowner who was in the first group of residents to replace older heating systems with a state-of-the-art wood pellet system said Wednesday that he’s already seen the advantages of the switch.

Jayco Laughton has had the system since February. He said that after the initial delivering of pellets, he didn’t need a fuel delivery until May, at a cost of around $700. Ordinarily, he said, he would be spending almost as much on heating oil every month of the year, except for two months in the summer.

Laughton was one of 15 homeowners who have had the systems installed through the Berlin Model Neighborhood Project, a subsidized program which makes it possible for homeowners to make the change. The project is a collaboration among Berlin BetterBuildings , the Northern Forest Center, the City of Berlin, and Maine Energy Systems.

Financing for the systems — which can cost between $18,500 and $22,500, installed — includes a direct cash subsidy from the Northern Forest Center, a 1 percent interest rate on loans through Berlin BetterBuildings , and other incentives. By the completion of the project, 40 homeowners will have had their traditional oil-burning systems replaced.

Laughton gave a tour of his system after Berlin BetterBuildings hosted a presentation by Charlie Niebling on the benefits, both to the homeowner and the region, of the sustainable, renewable home-heating fuel held at City Hall. Niebling, general manager of New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, also serves as chair of the board of the Biomass Energy Council.

He said under the state’s plan to switch to a mix of 25 percent renewables for energy needs by 2025, it’s reasonable to project that 15 percent of the 25 percent will be biomass, with the 18.5 percent of the thermal energy coming from biomass systems.

“It’s probably very, very ambitious, but somebody’s got to lay that vision out there,” he said.

Niebling said 72 percent of the homeowners in Coos County heat with oil, with 10,773 households spending $29 million a year to keep warm, with about $23 million of that going out of the county. The Northeast, he said, has the highest home-heating fuel costs in the country, and the money spent goes out of the country to pay for a non-renewable resource that fluctuates greatly in price.

The price of wood pellets is more stable, plus it’s a fuel that can be made in northern New England, adding, instead of subtracting, from the regional economy. A challenge to the widespread use of the fuel is the infancy of the infrastructure. Homeowners will not invest in systems if they feel that their supply line is not reliable, and fuel delivery services will not invest in trucks — which for bulk wood pellet delivery can cost upwards of $250,000 — if they cannot be assured of enough customers to make the investment cost-effective.

The Berlin program, and other programs like it, is important because the early-adopters, those residents who have systems now online, act as ambassadors for the bio-mass technology, showing off their heating systems to their friends and neighbors.

In the basement of Jayco Laughton’s house, Mike Wilson of the Northern Forest Center and Skip Bennett of Maine Energy Systems listened and added information, as Laughton explained some of the technical aspects of the system. Hot water is heated by the wood boiler, which has a summer setting. Intake of air and loading of the pellet fuel is closely monitored, so the heat produced is controlled. The boiler is auger-fed, and the basement storage bin can hold up to 3.5 tons of pellets.

Laughton’s pellet stove was retrofitted to the water-based heating system already in place.

The Berlin BetterBuildings project, administered by Cimbria Badenhausen, has also assisted owners of 200 residential properties and 50 commercial properties in completing energy efficiency projects, serving as the city’s center for energy efficiency.

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