WINDHAM – In the face of a regional wood pellet shortage this season, Bob Maurais, the president of the family business that owns Southern Maine Renewable Fuels in Windham, has resorted to a stringent rationing regime.

Traditionally, Maurais sells pellets by the ton, or pallet, which amounts to 50, 40-pound bags. A ton of pellets ranges in price between $250 and $315. The pellet shortage, Maurais said, is being driven by higher demand since more people are using pellet stoves, and the harsh winter weather has forced stove users to consume more pellet fuel.

But by early March, thanks to cold temperatures and the increasing popularity of pellets, Maurais had capped purchases to two bags at a time. On March 6, Maurais nearly ran out of pellets, he said.

“We were down to 11 bags total when the truck rolled in,” he said. “That’s how close we came.”

According to Maurais, who has sold renewable fuels for six years but is in his first season in the newly renovated building across from the Windham Public Safety Building on Route 202, the shortage is unprecedented. Southern Maine Renewable Fuels has a branch in Wells, where Maurais’ brother, Ed, has received customers from across New England this winter.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever seen this,” he said. “Two weeks ago, when the shortage was severe, my brother, Ed, had people driving from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts to buy five bags of pellets.”

Demand has dropped off since early March, but Maurais is still capping his customers’ purchases at 10 bags, he said.

Maurais said that the price of his pellets has not changed in three years. The point of rationing, he said, is to ensure that all of his customers can heat their homes.

“We wanted to make sure that people went home with some fuel,” he said.

Increasingly, Maurais said, his customers are incapable of buying in bulk, due to financial circumstances.

“The biggest reason that we decided to ration or meter is we have so many people – a number of our customers are living paycheck to paycheck,” Maurais said. “They can’t afford a $370 bill to put 100 gallons of fuel in their tank, and that means a lot to us to say that I can send you home with $30 or $40 worth of fuel. That’s going to keep you warm for another three or four days. OK. That was a real big part of the decision for our rationing of pellets.”

Maurais said that he has been turning customers away who have more than 10 bags on hand.

“The moment you say ‘shortage,’ people start to hoard,” he said. “When people were calling us, we were asking them, when we were getting really low, ‘What do you have for reserve?’ If they told us that they had more than 10 bags, we said, ‘Could you wait until next week to come in?’ Because 10 bags is going to get you through a week. Someone else is coming in with nothing.”

Maurais said that he has encountered a certain level of “hysteria” in response to the shortage.

“It’s just a common sense of, I’ve got to take care of my family, and do whatever I need to do to take care of my family, which isn’t a bad thing,” Maurais said. “But if you’ve got a ton of pellets right now in your garage – a ton of pellets is going to get you through the rest of the spring. You don’t absolutely have to buy five bags from me, if you’ve got a ton sitting in your garage right now. There are people who don’t have any at all. I want to save the fuel for the people who have nothing. There is a hoarding mentality when supply gets low. Not just in pellets. In anything.”

This winter season has proved a hectic inauguration for Maurais’ Windham business, which opened in the fall. Maurais and his family and friends spent 15 months demolishing and renovating the former Heritage Metalcraft building, which contained 40 years of creosote and ash buildup that blackened the interior roof trusses and walls. The site, which was also strewn with slag from the former foundry operation, also had a red swastika on the interior.

Maurais, a retired industrial arts teacher at Yarmouth High School who has designed and built his two homes, contracted out the electrical, plumbing, drywall and insulation work, and handled the rest himself.

“We did 90 percent of the work on this building ourselves,” he said. “What you see on the inside, carpentry work, all the metal work outside, we did all the framing of the new warehouse section, so all of these are custom-built cabinets; we did all the tile work ourselves. It’s quite a family effort.”

Maurais estimates that the family cut costs in half by doing the work themselves.

“We knew how much work would be involved in getting it to this point right here, but we saved a considerable amount doing it ourselves,” he said. “We had a lot of friends help on this project.”

Tom Bartell, Windham’s director of economic development, praised the renovation. The town was involved at an earlier point helping to remove the slag with federal Brownfield grant money.

“It was a mess,” Bartell said, describing the building beforehand. “It could be the model for redevelopment of problem properties, difficult properties.”

Bob Maurais, president of Southern Maine Renewable Fuels in Windham, holds a bio-brick, one of several compressed wood products that he sells from his store on Route 202 in Windham. Maurais said people from all over New England are coming to his shop, which he opened recently, seeking the bricks, as well as the more popular wood pellets, to fuel their homes. The former Heritage Metalcraft building, before the renovation. Southern Maine Renewable Fuels, after the renovation. 

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