March 4, 2010

Oil dealers urged to update image for green era


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The old

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The New

Staff Writer

AUBURN — The oil heat industry is at a crossroads.

Eight in 10 Maine homes are heated by oil, and survey data show that most users are satisfied. But the same polling shows that one in four customers would consider switching from oil heat, and one-third would go with solar or other renewable energy in a new home. Younger people, especially, want alternatives.

Now, Maine oil dealers are officially responding to the changing landscape.

As of this week, they are ''home energy professionals.'' Their workers are ''energy conservation technicians,'' with the skills to help customers burn less oil and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Their service departments are now ''energy conservation departments.''

And after 55 years, the trade group that led the state's transition from coal to oil in the 20th century, the Maine Oil Dealers Association, has a new name to reflect its 21st-century expansion into bioheat, wood pellets and other power sources.

Say hello to the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

A new Web site, www.maine, will be launched within the next week.

The landmark changes were announced Tuesday at a motivational meeting here during what organizers called The Crossroads Summit. It was billed as the event of the decade for an industry that pumps 400 million gallons of oil a year.

Old-school oil dealers could slowly go out of business, a speaker told participants, as longtime customers die and younger people go green. There is no choice but to pursue them.

''We are standing at a crossroads,'' said Tom Morse, co-owner of the Woodbury & Morse ad agency in Portland. ''But now we're crossing the green bridge of hope.''

Morse and other speakers tried to lead 170 oil heat businesspeople across that figurative bridge. Their presentation included a multimedia pep talk, with Morse on a stage asking members, like a preacher at a revival meeting, to repeat ''I promise'' to promote biofuels and make zero emissions a goal.

Those culture changes won't happen overnight. And it's too early to know how the message will transform an industry that's dominated by small, family-owned companies with conservative business practices.

The jarring format was chosen to shock members, said Jamie Py, the association's executive director.

''It's always dangerous when you do something outside the box,'' he said, ''but hey, there is no box.''

Py agreed that skeptics will just see public relations and reject the notion that oil dealers can become green energy marketers. But it's already beginning.

Some dealers offer energy audits and sell wood pellets. Heutz Oil Co., a third-generation dealer in Lewiston, has a silo for bulk pellet storage. Tim Heutz, the vice president, now serves on the Maine Pellet Fuels Association board.

Although most Maine homes still use oil heat, Py said his members can offer customers faster paybacks than alternative systems promise, by showing them how to burn less fuel.

Meanwhile, many dealers have begun selling bioheat -- fuel oil that's mixed with a small percentage of vegetable-based oil to cut air pollution.

A pending transition to low-sulfur heating oil could dramatically cut emissions and open the door to the super-efficient boilers used in Europe.

Longer term, dealers are banking on technology being developed in Maine and elsewhere to economically convert waste wood into liquid fuel -- and power them cleanly across that green bridge.

The group's plan was welcomed Wednesday by John Kerry, who heads the state's energy office. He called it a positive development for an industry that plays an important role in Maine's economy.

Fossil fuels will continue to be part of Maine's energy mix for decades, Kerry said. Dealers have the distribution network and skills to help customers use oil more efficiently. Their makeover into energy marketers makes sense, he said, although some people will quibble over their pure-green credentials.

''If it's not called green, then it's a lighter shade of green,'' he said.

At Tuesday's conference, participants saw examples of how oil is under siege every day in the news media and popular culture.

Recently, Ty Pennington embraced a shaken mother on his TV show, ''Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,'' as she worried about the oil tank in her basement. Pennington commiserated, saying it was like a bomb. His erroneous comment stunned oil dealers across the country.

They also saw how big energy companies and progressive dealers in other states are fighting back. Consultant Richard Goldberg, of Secaucus, N.J.-based Warm Thoughts Communications, displayed Web sites that offer free energy audits, bioheat and information on solar and wind power.

Goldberg asked how many dealers in the room do audits. Few hands went up.

Dealers also need to tell their story with technology, he said, using e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. Goldberg asked if anyone writes a blog on their Web site. No one.

Then Py presented survey information, updated against questions asked 10 years ago. In general, it shows that the satisfaction customers have had with oil heat is being eroded by new concerns about price and the environment. That shift is most apparent with younger people, the next generation of customers.

Now is the time to tell them a story about oil heat that they may not know, Py and Morse said, and it's a green story. It's about an industry that has cut average household consumption in 30 years from 1,300 gallons to 800 gallons a year, a 40 percent drop in oil heat's carbon footprint.

Improvements have come about, in part, through more efficient equipment and proper maintenance. So, dealers were told, rather than telling customers that their heating system is dirty and needs an annual cleaning, rebrand the chore as an ''energy-efficiency checkup.''

After suggesting those and other changes, the presentation built to a climax with the sound of Eric Clapton's ''Crossroads'' through the audio system.

Then it was Morse's turn, on the stage, flanked by video screens flashing the words ''transition,'' ''rebirth'' and ''change.''

After Morse outlined major talking points and asked participants to promise to take the message to their customers, to become ambassadors for oil heat, the Maine Oil Dealers Association logo faded away. It was replaced by the Maine Energy Marketers Association tag, amid music and pulsing lights.

The impact of the upheaval may take time to play out.

David Martin, an association board chair and vice president of Bangor-based Webber Energy Fuels, said most dealers haven't felt enough competitive pressure yet to shake up their business models. But the status quo can't endure, based on the public's flagging opinion of oil heat.

''That's why we're here today. That's why it's a big deal,'' he said.

Change will have to reach down to small companies such as Lisbon Fuel Co. Its owner, John Piela, has been at the helm for 50 years, doesn't advertise much and has built a customer base largely by word of mouth.

''It's an exciting time,'' he said, ''but I'm also a little apprehensive.''

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

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