BERLIN – A group of homeowners gathered at Tea Birds Restaurant Tuesday night to celebrate the end of their addiction to home heating oil. "Every time the oil truck goes by, I smile," said Marie Canning.
Canning's home is one of 36 Berlin homes that has or is in the process of replacing its oil burner with a high efficiency wood pellet boiler. It is estimated the 36 homeowners combined will save more than $50,000 a year in heating costs.
In addition to saving money, the homeowners are also proving that switching to a local renewable energy source helps the local economy and the environment. The project is expected to have a $200,000 annual impact on the local economy.
The homeowners participated in the Model Neighborhood Project, which subsidized the purchase and installation of the boilers. Launched in the fall of 2011 by the Northern Forest Center, Berlin Better Buildings, and Maine Energy Systems, the goal was to install 40 pellet boilers in Berlin homes. "Berlin has proven that this technology works, that we can use local wood to replace foreign oil, that we can spend our heating dollars locally and support jobs in the local forest industry," said Rob Riley, president of the Northern Forest Center.
Mike Wilson, senior program director at the Northern Forest Center, said Berlin now has the highest concentration of bulk pellet boilers in the country. "Berlin really is a model for this," he said.
Wilson said the 36 boilers will annually eliminate 347 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and replace 31,000 gallons of oil.
Skip Bunnett of the Maine Energy System said the first group of homeowners in the program had a lot of patience as the new technology was introduced. Maine Energy System director Dutch Dresser said the enthusiasm of the first homeowners was crucial to the program's success and make it easier for others to make the switch.
"This really is a tremendous project," said Cimbria Badenhausen, community director for Berlin Better Buildings. "Offering our clients a renewable energy alternative to enhance the savings obtained through energy efficiency measures was a wonderful bonus," she said.
Badenhausen said she wished the program would have been available to surrounding communities but it was limited to Berlin. Even so, Brad and Sue Wyman of Dummer toured one of the early installations in Berlin and decided to put a wood pellet boiler in their house on their own.
The program subsidized over two-thirds of the cost of transitioning from oil heating systems to the pellet boilers. The state-of-the-art boilers range up to $25,000 but through the program the homeowner's share was $5,000 to $10,000. The Northern Forest Center subsidized 39 percent of the cost and rebates through the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission (PUC) covered 25 percent. The PUC rebates are available statewide. The program also locked in the price of the pellets through this June at the equivalent of $1.99/gallon of heating oil.
Riley said the Northern Forest Center plans to replicate the Model Neighborhood Program in other communities in the four state region as soon as funding is secured. The center was taping testimonials from the homeowners Tuesday night to use in raising money. One woman said she used to wear battery-operated socks to keep her feet warm but since installing the pellet boiler, she has no need for the socks because her house is warm. Mark Tremblay said he and his wife have had six different heating systems in the 33 years they have owned their house. He said the pellet boiler is "unquestionably the best".
The program has also helped both the Berlin Housing Authority and St. Kieran's Center for the Arts convert their buildings. St. Kieran Executive Director Joan Chamberlain said she used to wear boots in her office and would negotiate with groups over heat for practices and rehearsals. With the new pellet boiler, she estimated the center will save $10,000 in heating costs for the year. More importantly she said, "We're happy. We're warm." Badenhausen and Wilson noted there are still four more spots left in the Berlin Model Neighborhood Model program. Interested Berlin homeowners should call Badenhausen at 717-6529 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Maine Energy Systems, based in Bethel, Maine, will continue to look for homeowners interested in converting to wood pellets.
The Model Neighborhood Project has been supported by foundation, individuals and corporations that purchased tax credits through the N.H. Community Development Finance Authority. Tax credit purchasers include Bank of New Hampshire, Citizens Bank, The Common Man, First Colebrook Bank, Global Forest Partners, Grappone Automotive Group, The Lyme Timber Company, Nathan Wechsler & Co. PA, Northland Forest Products, Northway Bank, Stoneyfield Farm, and TransCanada USA.
The Neil & Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Jane's Trust, the John Merck Fund, and the US Endowment for Forestry & Communities have provided grant support for the project.