A conference touting the benefits of renewable energy opens Wednesday at the Cumberland County Civic Center, an opportunity being seized by advocates of Maine’s emerging pellet-fuel industry.

In its first visit to Maine, the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo is expected to attract 400 professionals for tours of biomass heat installations, and to attend technical sessions and trade discussions. Also for the first time, the Expo will open its doors to the public for a free Green Heating Fair on Thursday evening and Friday morning.

The regional forum follows a trip to Denmark last week by 30 business people with interests in Maine’s pellet industry. Among them were Ryan Hamilton and Jacob Roberson, partners in Portland’s Interphase Energy, the North American distributor for a Danish boiler made by Nordjysk Bioenergi, or NBE, sold here under the name Kedel. The owners of NBE are expected to attend the expo, providing an opportunity for Hamilton and Roberson to convince the executives to site an assembly operation in Portland.

But on a grander level, they and others in the industry are trying raise awareness of pellet-fueled heat.

“Maine is in its infancy with the entire supply chain,” said Hamilton. “It has manufacturing, delivery and installation. All the ingredients are there, and the awareness is coming.”

According to Maine Pellet Fuels Association estimates, pellets satisfy less than 5 percent of the state’s heating demand. There are fewer than 500 boilers and a much greater, but uncounted, number of stoves are in place. The industry blames its limited penetration on a lack of public awareness, the high cost of converting to pellet heat and the surge of new pipelines for natural gas, which, at least for now, is priced on par with pellets.

But among its assets are four wood-pellet factories, a growing network of delivery trucks and an assembly operation for a European pellet boiler. For the NBE boiler, the semi-automatic central-heating system can be installed in a home for between $12,000 and $15,000, not much more than typical oil and gas units.

Hamilton and Roberson led a group from northern New England and New York to a ribbon cutting at NBE’s new factory in Saeby, Denmark. The factory was built with the goal of targeting the New England market. Among the group were Maine firms that deliver pellets, such as Daigle Oil in Fort Kent and Heutz Oil in Lewiston, and install the Kedel boiler, such as ReVision Heat in Portland.

Interphase Energy currently imports the Kedel boiler via the new Eimskip container shipping service. Hamilton and Roberson hope to eventually assemble boilers in Portland. The two owners of NBE are due in the city this week to attend the Biomass Heating Expo and explore the assembly option.

“Once we get a certain volume, we would consider manufacturing in Maine,” Roberson said.

If Interphase is successful in starting an assembly operation, it will be following the lead of Maine Energy Systems in Bethel.

Les Otten and his partners started their company six years ago importing the OkoFen pellet boiler from Austria. They’ve installed roughly 1,000 boilers, largely in northern New England. Home units run from $15,500 to $22,000 for a system that includes automatic fuel feeding, ash removal and cleaning. The company employs 18 people, is assembling the units in Bethel and is adding a fourth truck to its delivery fleet for bulk pellets.

Growth is strong, Otten said, but is restrained by the continued unfamiliarity with pellet heat.

Upfront cost also is a hurdle. A homeowner can buy a propane heater for $5,000, Otten said, but the fuel is much more expensive than pellets. So it becomes a matter of making an investment based on a known payback, which is why he sells more to small businesses than homeowners.

“Businesses are better at doing the calculation because they are more conscious of the bottom line,” he said.

A program from Efficiency Maine could promote greater use of pellet heat. The quasi-state agency is offering limited-time, $5,000 rebates for pellet boilers that include the OkoFen and Kedel.

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

[email protected]

This story was updated at 8:53 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 to correct the name of one of the principals of Interphase Energy and the name of ReVision Heat.