The percentage of Mainers burning oil to heat their homes has fallen to levels not seen since 1980, new Census Bureau figures show.

Oil use declined by a statistically significant percentage between 2006 and 2009, according to the census figures, with the steepest drop coming after prices briefly hit record highs in 2008.

The number of residents who reported that oil was their primary heat source fell to 71.4 percent in 2009, down from 80 percent in 2000.

The drop is small, but noteworthy. For home heating, Maine is the most oil-dependent state in the nation. In recent years, the state and federal governments have been promoting policies that encourage conservation and fuel switching.

Oil’s shrinking share coincided with an uptick in wood heat, which climbed from 6.4 percent in 2000 to 11.5 percent in 2009. That comeback may not be surprising, in the most heavily forested state in the country.

But it’s premature to say whether this is a long-lasting trend or a temporary reaction. In 1990, during a period of high oil prices, the census found that 69.5 percent of Maine homes relied primarily on oil heat; 14.1 percent burned wood.

The census figures don’t capture homes that burn wood as a supplemental source, which makes heating trends harder to forecast in Maine.

“There’s no question that people are responding to the marketplace,” said John Kerry, the state’s energy director. “I don’t believe these trends are permanent, at this point.”

New wood-heat technology, such as pellet stoves and boilers, and the slow but steady expansion of natural gas in Maine may lead to long-term changes, Kerry predicted. But he also said he expects petroleum to be an important source of home heating in Maine for the foreseeable future.

The latest information comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which was conducted annually over the past five years. Although different from the familiar, 10-year census, the annual survey contains home heating information that is useful for comparison purposes.

WHAT HISTORY SHOWS

Shifting responses to the marketplace, and changing fuel sources, are evident when reviewing home-heat census reporting from Maine dating back to 1940.

Before World War II, more than half of all Maine homes were heated primarily with wood. Coal warmed 29.1 percent. Fuel oil was only 16.5 percent.

By 1950, oil had overtaken wood and coal, reaching a 50 percent share.

Oil use peaked in 1970, heating more than nine out of 10 Maine homes. The first wave of oil price shocks in the 1970s led to a reshuffling of the deck by 1980, with oil at 71.3 percent, wood at 15.1 and electricity at 10.6 percent.

In many parts of the country, natural gas is the dominant heating fuel. But in Maine, natural gas and propane each captured less than 2 percent of market share through 1990.

That’s beginning to change, with expanding gas pipelines and the appeal of high-efficiency boilers. Natural gas last year warmed 4.5 percent of homes; bottled gas was at 6.5 percent. These numbers are likely to rise, experts say, if gas prices remain low and more homes switch from oil to gas.

POLICIES AFFECT HABITS

Beyond price, government policies may have contributed to the most-recent move away from fuel oil.

The federal government’s economic stimulus program in 2009 and 2010 created generous tax credits for buying stoves and boilers that burn cordwood and wood pellets, as well as for high-efficiency gas boilers. Those incentives ended Friday, replaced with more-limited credits for 2011.

The tax credits helped, but overall sales were tempered by the recession, according to Don McClure, stove manager at Damariscotta Hardware.

People who bought pellet stoves and boilers tend to be more serious about going off oil, he said, although pellets remain a small segment of the market.

FURNACES SERVE AS BACKUP

People who bought woodstoves generally keep their furnaces for backup, McClure said, so they have the capacity to switch back to oil if prices drop.

That flexibility is good for residents, but it makes permanent reductions in oil use harder to predict, Kerry noted. Decades ago, Mainers were more willing and able to lug cordwood.

That ability may be diminishing with the state’s aging population, but the advent of automated pellet boilers and similar devices offers another way to replace oil heat.

“People are returning to wood with more-efficient equipment,” Kerry said. “They have more options.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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