Besides having a crazy cool name, Dutch Dresser has a habit of being on the cutting edge. In 1990 he got the bright idea to hook Gould Academy, where he used to be a teacher and associate headmaster, up to a new-fangled thing called the internet. In 2007 he and his old friend Les Otten, inspired by European models, started Maine Energy Systems in Bethel, which builds central heating systems that burn wood pellets. We called him up to find out how he got into this line of work, what the benefits of heating with wood pellets are and why he’s a convert.

O INTERNET PIONEER!: Dresser grew up in Cape Elizabeth and taught science in Eastport and at the Hinckley School in Hinckley for several years. In 1979 he began what would be a 25-year relationship with Gould Academy in Bethel. He’d teach usually one course a year and served as the assistant head of school. “I was the academic dean if you will. I was given a fair amount of latitude and started a lot of programs.” Including a training course for a junior Ski Patrol (for skiers under 18 years old). “We jacketed our first Ski Patrol at Sunday River in 1980.” He was also an early adapter to computers and set Gould up with its first computer lab and in 1992, with the help of the University of Maine, helped connect the school to the fledgling internet. “That was just before Mosaic was released.” (Talk about a blast from the past.) The network at the school led Dresser to go into a side business whereby townspeople could dial into a modem at his house and get online.

OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA: Ski patrol and computers – those are some widely varying interests. “I’m sort of an omnivore when it comes to exploration. That is what I do for fun.” In 2007 it led to a partnership with Les Otten, a ski resort mogul who began building his empire with the purchase of Sunday River and then lost it all. Otten’s company, American Skiing Co., was dismantled in 2007. Both men were on Gov. John Baldacci’s Wood-to-Energy Task Force, which explored ways to promote Maine’s forest resources to reduce energy costs. Otten chaired the task force. “We landed on residential heating, basically because we (Mainers, that is) were spending $1 billion a year on heating oil. It just looked to us that there ought to be a better model.” High-efficiency wood pellet burning systems, with their use of renewable resources and lower emissions, were the most appealing. And the market seemed wide open. “Nobody was doing anything serious with pellet central heating.” The models that were available had limitations. “In order to use them, you had to dump pellets in them daily and you had to remove ash daily.”

IF YOU BUILD IT: After working with a Swedish company in 2010 they moved onto a partnership with an Austrian company, ÖkoFEN, that made a model they liked. They started by importing ÖkoFEN systems and in 2013 acquired the licensing rights to manufacture the systems in Bethel. That doesn’t mean they’re doing it from scratch: “Building a boiler is a lot like building a car. Parts come from everywhere and you put them together.” On the plus side for the business, “there was no competitor on the landscape.” On the down side, “nor was there any support or infrastructure in place. There was no one to bring you the pellets. We had to develop trucks to bring you the pellets and blow them into storage units in the home.” But first, they had to design those storage units. “That we later learned had already been done better in Austria.”

WHY WOOD? Dresser sounds envious of Austria and the Scandinavian countries where pellet central heating systems have caught on. “They are more savvy about environmental issues. And about the cost of heating.” The fuel-buying patterns in Austria switched radically in a decade, he said. “The governments got behind fuel switching to biomass. They used the bully pulpit to promote it.” That hasn’t happened in the United States. “We don’t seem to have the same environmental consciousness.” But Maine Energy Systems isn’t giving up. “I think we are getting there slowly.”

HOW’S BUSINESS? Despite strong incentives in some states, like a $5,000 rebate through Efficiency Maine for installing a biomass boiler that burns pellets, “business is not anywhere near as good as it was when fossil fuel prices were high.” He’s sold systems all over the Northeast and well up into Canada. “I have a lot of boilers in the Northwest territories of Canada.” Including one heating a school north of the Arctic Circle. Maine Energy Systems has also trained 700 technicians and installers. But the systems aren’t cheap to buy and install, and thanks to the relatively low price of oil now, heating with wood pellets runs about the same cost. “A lot of people buy based on price.”


WHAT ABOUT THE TREES? Dresser is used to hearing from people who get nervous about heating with wood, that it’s wasteful. He counters that the low-value wood that used to be funneled into the pulp and paper industry is ideal for wood pellets and not much else. “The low-value wood needs to come out of the forest to allow growth in the old-stand stuff.” Which in turn is needed for the health of the lumber business, which relies on that older growth.

FILL ‘ER UP: Those of us who use oil or propane are used to seeing the truck pulling up every few weeks in the winter for a delivery. How does one go about storing fuel with a central heating system that runs on wood pellets? Dresser says in Europe the style is to include a room in the basement devoted to pellets. Here we’re more likely to have a storage bin, assembled in the cellar by the same people who would put in the system. But the deliveryman or woman might need to come only three times a season, if that, he said. A home that burns 900 gallons of oil a year would take about 7.5 tons of pellets to heat. The typical storage bin holds three tons of pellets.

LOW MAINTENANCE: When he’s courting new customers, Dresser finds they’re often nervous that a wood pellet fuel system is going to take a lot of maintenance. Trips to the cellar. Cleaning the thing. He concedes the systems aren’t as low maintenance as say, having the oil truck pull up and pour fuel into the house. But the trips to the cellar are minimal, he said. Home owners have to remove a buildup of ash about four times a year; the noncombustible “salts” from the wood collect. The good news is, they can get dumped right into the garden, which, if the soil is acid, is a good thing. “It’s very much like lime.”

A FAN’S NOTES: In case you’re wondering, yes, Dresser does have a pellet system in his own house, an old farmhouse that came with “a very large oil boiler that would roar to life and heat for four minutes, then quiet down, then roar to life in another 10 minutes.” He switched over to a biomass boiler in 2008 and said he wouldn’t go back. The pellet system burns at a lower but more constant level. “It isn’t up and down. It is a discernibly different feel that we wouldn’t swap for anything.”

ONE LAST THING: How do you get a name like Dutch? “My middle name is Holland.”

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