Wood pellet stoves drive heat in more houses in Western Pennsylvania
When his wood-burning stove wouldn’t warm his living room, Jim Passieu bought one that burns wood pellets, hoping its supplemental heat would help.
“I live high on a hill, so I get all the wind,” Passieu said of his split-level house in Cecil. “This pellet stove puts the heat in the room where we sit.”
The stove worked so well, he burned only pellets last winter.
Passieu is a part of a growing group of homeowners and businesses relying on an old renewable fuel burned with sophisticated stove technology. Wood pellets are a cheaper and cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, industry and government officials say.
“It has grown steadily over the last 20 years, and ironically, it’s still a surprise to many people how many folks use pellets to supplement their home heating,” said John Crouch, director of public affairs at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association in Pittsburgh’s Arlington neighborhood.
Last year, 2.5 million households across the country used wood, including pellets, as the main source of home heating, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s 24 percent more than the 1.9 million households in 2005. Nine million more households use wood as a secondary fuel.
Newer stove models have digital controls with Bluetooth capabilities that can connect to a cellphone and schedule pellets to burn in varying increments during the day. Pellets produce much less smoke than wood because of their low moisture content, industry experts say.
Growing consumer demand
The Northeast leads the country in pellet production for residential home heating and consumption, according to the EIA.
Sales at Dry Creek Wood Pellets, a manufacturer in New York, rose 14 percent since last year, said Dan Wetzel, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing. The company sells to 320 retailers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania, and has a mill in Ulysses in Potter County and Arcade, N.Y.
Dry Creek’s pellets and most others used for home heating are made of sawdust and waste wood.
“We’re not harvesting trees,” Wetzel said.
Dry Creek sells its pellets to Bradigan’s Heating and Air in Kittanning, which sells pellet-burning stoves.
“We’ve seen in the last two to three years that due to other energy forms going up in price, customers want a secondary heat source,” said Sharon Bradigan, the store’s marketing manager.
Andy Steiminger, owner of Buck Stove & Fireplaces of Beaver Valley in Monaca, uses a pellet stove to heat his three-story house. He has been selling them for 20 years. Demand steadily increased over that time, he said, but business depends on oil and natural gas prices.
“If oil and gas prices are high, then we’re busy,” he said. “If they’re low, then we’re not so busy.”
Increased demand for pellets spiked their price and brought shortages in winter months, retailers say. Prices for pellets are lower in summer, but have increased over the past two years, along with demand, wholesalers and retailers say.
Powering through biomass
Burning pellets to produce electricity is gaining popularity as power companies in the United States and Europe seek lower-carbon alternatives to coal.
Industrial pellet shipments out of the country more than doubled over the past two years, from just more than 2 million short tons in 2012 to nearly 4.5 million in 2014, according to the EIA. The United States eclipsed Canada in 2012 as the largest exporter of wood pellets.
Europe’s demand is led by England and fueled in part by generous government aid and mandates aimed to steer energy consumption toward sources such as wood or solar.
Electricity generated from biomass, which includes wood and other vegetative matter, in the United Kingdom increased by 43 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the EIA. By comparison, biomass was 1.7 percent of electricity generation in the United States last year — minute compared with coal and natural gas.
Pellets used to produce power typically are made from lower-quality wood, have more ash, and are bigger than those used for home heating. The home heating and industrial sectors of the pellet industry largely are separate; manufacturers make pellets for one market or the other, said Bruce Lisle, president and CEO of Energex Corp., a pellet manufacturer based in Mifflintown, near Harrisburg.
Industrial pellet makers mostly are based in the Southeast, where critics say European demand is driving their rampant clear-cutting of forests. But pellet industry advocates argue the industrial pellet industry is filling the hole left by the collapse of the paper and pulp industry in the South.
“It’s viewed as some dramatic new increase,” said Charles Niebling, a consultant for the pellet industry based in Concord, N.H., and member of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council board of directors. “It’s not (that) it’s just displacing paper.”
Katelyn Ferral is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5627 or [email protected].