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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Pellet Fuel Demand High; Coal Making A Comeback

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Anthracite coal
Switching to alternative heat sources may be easier said than done during the upcoming home heating season, with at least one alternative fuel already in short supply.

Pellet stoves and the pellets that fuel them are presently hard to come by regionally, and indications are that the shortage extends across the Northeast.

Desperately Seeking Pellets

Hoosac Valley Coal and Grain company owner Keith Hayden sells pellets at the Adams-based store; on Oct. 18, Hayden received a telephone call from a Syracuse, N.Y. man embarked on a pellet quest.

“He said that he can’t find pellets within a 100-mile radius of his home, and if I’d had pellets, he would have rented a trailer and driven over to get them,” Hayden said.

Hayden said he’s recently received a similar telephone inquiry from someone living in New Hampshire. The store is currently sold out of the pellets, and Hayden had to disappoint both callers, he said.

And not only is the store currently sold out of the pellets, the next five scheduled deliveries are already sold, Hayden said. He may be able to sell pellets to additional customers at the start of the new year, he said.

Kathy Klein of North Adams has owned a pellet stove for several years. Klein said that the stove heats her two-story home easily and comfortably and has saved money in fuel costs.

“I wouldn’t live without it,” she said. “The stove I have has six heat settings and I’m heating right now with it set on the lowest setting, otherwise it gets too hot in the house.”

Her fuel supply is down to three bags of pellets, she said. She is having difficulty finding a store with pellets in stock. Klein said she usually purchases pellets at a North Adams-based Wal-mart store; every time she tries to buy pellets, the store is sold out.

“As fast as they get them in, out they go,” she said. “I keep calling and they keep telling me they’re sorry, they are sold out.”

Waiting List

In Bennington, Vt., the Tractor Supply store has sold out of pellets. The store expects a delivery in November. The store has also sold out of pellet stoves, and those interested in purchasing a stove can be placed on a waiting list, said store Assistant Manager Candy Rousseau.

“As soon as the stoves come in, they go,” said Rousseau. “The demand [for stoves] has slowed down a little bit, and we are still putting people on a list. We’ve been able to take care of people who get on a list; they have to wait until we get the stoves in.”

The wait time can be several weeks.

At the Bennington Pool and Spa store, which sells a variety of wood- and pellet-burning stoves, a few pellet stoves and bags of pellets are available for sale, said store employee Nate Rice.

“People kind of waited until fall to get into the pellet stoves, and the manufacturers can’t always keep up with the demand,” Rice said.

Renewable Energy

Increased demand for pellets among those already owning the stoves and those acquiring them for the first time has led to a dwindling supply of the fuel, he said.

“One thing that kind of hurt is people bought more pellets than normal,” he said. “It’s like when people all pile into gas stations and then the gas runs out.”

The situation is a direct result of spikes in home heating fuel prices and any pellet stove and pellet fuel shortages are likely temporary, said Rousseau and Rice. The pellet industry is likely to increase production of both stoves and fuel to meet the rising product demand, both said.

“Pellets can be manufactured and bought year-round,” said Rice. “And it’s a renewable energy resource, which people like. Many people are using their pellet stoves as a secondary heat source but the stoves can be used as a primary heat source.”

Rousseau said that this heating season, her family will rely on a pellet stove as the primary heat source for their two-story farmhouse.

“It’s heating the house right now, and it’s only set on “one” [low heat setting],” she said. “I love it; it’s easy to use. It has push-button on and off, and heat control settings, and is equipped with blowers. [Pellet stoves] are very nice.”

The current cost of pellets is among the “very nice” factors; one ton of pellets costs about $200, and may last for about two months, said Rice. Pellet costs can vary from store to store.

The stoves range in price from about $1,300 to $3,000 and, if properly maintained, can be used for 20 to 30 years. Pellet-burning furnaces and boilers are also available.

Coal Comeback

Coal is experiencing a big revival as a heating fuel, said Hayden.

“We’re selling more coal now than probably any other time since I’ve owned the business,” he said, and noted that he expects to sell over 2,000 ton of coal during the upcoming heating season.

Hayden sells coal-burning stoves as well, and said the demand is up.

“Over 15 years, I’ve probably sold 700 coal stoves, so far this year, I’ve sold between 40 or 50,” he said.

Increased demand for coal stoves has customers waiting eight to 10 weeks for delivery in some cases, Hayden said. Coal itself seems to be available; Hayden said that the store is receiving delivery of 100 tons of coal per week. Acquiring a pellet supply is taking more time, he said.

“Coal [supply] has never been a problem for me,” he said. “It might get tight this year, but I bring in 100 ton of coal a week, and it takes me three weeks to get a supply of pellets.”

Coal prices vary; one ton of bagged coal is currently priced at $240 per ton, while one ton of bulk coal, meaning not bagged and stored in indoor or outdoor “bins,” costs about $195.

Hayden said that he uses bulk coal to heat his Savoy-based, 2,500-square-foot home and burns about four tons a year. The yearly cost is about $800, he said. A large Victorian-style home would likely cost more to heat with coal, while a smaller modular style home would probably cost less to heat, he said.

As of Oct. 17, the Massachusetts average per-gallon price for home heating fuel was $2.54 per gallon, while the average per-gallon price for propane gas was listed as $2.28.

Pellets are usually made from materials such as sawdust and wood chips but fruit pits, nut hulls, and unprocessed shelled corn may be used to make pellets for specific stoves. Pellets are considered a “clean burning” fuel.

Cleaned Up

The coal industry has cleaned up its’ product considerably, Hayden said.

“You don’t have the black soot like there was in the past,” he said.

Like pellets, coal burning does not result in creosote build-up, which occurs in wood-burning stoves and is the primary cause of chimney fires. Anthracite coal is very hard, very clean and produces the most heat, Hayden said.

Nearly all the nation’s anthracite coal is mined in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Coal is not a renewable energy source. A 100-year coal outlook predicts adequate coal supplies but the supply beyond that point has not been determined, Hayden said.

“People going to pellets like it because it is a renewable energy source,” Hayden acknowledged.

But coal’s renaissance is far from over, he added.

“There’s been a lot of interest,” he said. “I’m getting calls about coal all the time. And this year, I sold my first coal boiler.”

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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