Pellet Heating a Viable Energy Alternative

By CHARLES CHAVES/ecoRI News contributor

Oil has long been the primary heating source across much of the Northeast. However, the number of households seeking viable alternatives to expensive oil has continued to rise since about 2008, when the price skyrocketed to more than $4 a gallon in some places.

Sales of pellet stoves and furnaces consequently have been increasing in the United States as more Americans seek affordable alternatives to costly home-heating oil. Attempting to find much-needed relief from record-high prices, consumers are willing to pay the upfront cost for pellet stoves, which start at about $1,500 for economical brands, not including installation.

In general, pellet stoves pay for themselves in about four years. Both Lowe’s and Home Depot charged $4.18 for a bag of 40 pounds this past winter in the Providence area. Pellets are usually delivered on a 1-ton pallet of 50 40-pound bags that costs between $200 and $300. On average, it takes 2 to 3 tons a year to heat a home, which translates to spending about $900 to heat a typical three-bedroom home with a pellet stove.

Pellets also offer price stability, as buying an entire year’s supply in bulk avoids the often-volatile cost of heating oil. For instance, a 250-gallon tank of oil at $3.50 a gallon would cost $875, but the price of oil constantly fluctuates.

Pellet fuel can substitute home-heating oil as an economically viable source of thermal energy for both residential and commercial applications. Pellet stoves first emerged in this country in the 1970s as a response to fuel price instability, according to the Pellet Fuels Institute, a trade group based in Arlington, Va. Pellets typically are made from wood waste produced at paper and saw mills and at furniture manufacturing plants.

In addition, other biomass materials such as cornstalks, wastepaper and straw are utilized to manufacture pellet fuel.

Pellets offer consumers efficiency and environmental benefits over cordwood. Pellets burn more cleanly and more efficiently than wood, according to the Pellet Fuels Institute, because they effectively generate more heat while emitting less pollution. For example, pellets emit far less polluting particulate — less than 2 grams an hour compared to 40-60 grams an hour for a wood fireplace. Specifically, pellet stoves are 80 percent efficient and come with thermostats. And, unlike wood stoves, they shut off when they reach a determined temperature. They then relight themselves when the desired temperature drops.

The sharp rise of heating oil prices has fueled a consumer thirst for viable alternatives such as wood pellets. Pellets so far have replaced about 8 million barrels of oil annually, according to the Pellet Fuels Institute. Such energy displacement helps stimulate the American economy while enhancing national security and helping protect the environment.