September 13, 2012

Mainers gain on oil-free objective

Efforts to weatherize homes and switch to other fuels loosen oil's historic grip faster than expected.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

The sound of heating systems coming to life this month is a rude awakening, following a warm and sunny summer. But it's a sound that's being heard less often in Maine, when it comes to oil heat.

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Molly and Chris Just with their six-month-old son Ben just installed this wood-pellet boiler (foreground), to replace their old oil-fired boiler. Maine's consumption of oil is steadily declining and has reached levels not seen since 1984.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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The amount of heating oil burned in Maine homes in 2010 declined to levels not seen since 1984. Consumption has been falling steadily since 2004 and is expected to continue

The total amount of heating oil burned in Maine households was cut by more than half from 2004 to 2010, to about 189 million gallons.

In fact, oil consumption in Maine homes has declined to levels not seen since at least 1984, federal figures show.

The flight from oil coincides with an almost-steady rise in retail prices since 2009, when the recession briefly reversed an upward trend that began two years earlier.

It also reflects broader efforts in Maine business and industry to reduce oil use. Overall, Maine burned 838 million gallons of oil in 2003, apparently an all-time high. In 2010, consumption was down to 501 million gallons, on par with the amount burned in 1991, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that were analyzed by the Portland Press Herald.

Data from 2011 isn't available yet. But the warm winter, and average prices that topped $3.50 a gallon, are expected to have caused further declines.

Maine officials often cite the state's highest-in-the-nation dependence on oil heat, and the impact of rising oil prices on household budgets. But the latest statistics show that stepped-up efforts to weatherize homes, install efficient oil burners and switch to other fuels -- namely natural gas, propane and wood -- are loosening oil's historic grip faster than anticipated.

"When people have options, they will respond," said Ken Fletcher, who heads the Governor's Energy Office. "Heating with oil is convenient, but economics are driving what people are doing."

As part of Maine's Energy Action Plan, the energy office set a goal in 2004 of cutting Maine's overall oil use in half by 2050. That goal now appears timid.

Based on the pace at which home and business owners are quitting oil, or supplementing it with other sources, the target could be hit in the next few years, Fletcher estimates.

The trend may accelerate this year. The average price of heating oil last week in Greater Portland was $3.50 a gallon, according to In Down East Maine, the average was $3.73.

If those prices end up reflecting seasonal averages, a household in Portland that burns 750 gallons in a typical winter will spend $2,625. If the price reaches $4 a gallon, as it did last year in some parts of the state, a typical household could spend $3,000.

The mounting cost of oil heat has prompted businesses to offer more products and services that are speeding up the conversion to other fuels.

"It's really price-dependent," said William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics in Bethel.

Strauss is an economist who studies and promotes wood-energy technologies. He's also a director of Maine Energy Systems, which manufactures wood-pellet boilers. The company's Austrian-designed central heating systems are popular in Europe, but the $20,000 price deters wider use in the United States.

As an incentive, the company is advertising a deal that locks the delivery price of pellets at an oil equivalent of $1.99 a gallon, for two years.

A stable, low price appeals to homeowners like Chris and Molly Just, who had a Maine Energy Systems wood-fired boiler installed last year in their 70-year-old home in Pownal.

The home's aging oil-fired boiler was failing, and the couple looked at options including a new oil unit, propane and geothermal heat.

Propane might have been the least costly up front, but Chris Just said he wanted a renewable fuel. "If we were going to switch from oil, propane seemed like a lateral move," he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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