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December 02, 2016
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Pellet boilers: not your grandfather’s wood stove; A once-quaint technology transformed into sustainability’s cutting edge

This Kedel pellet unit and pellet storage bin fit into a basement much as a conventional fossil-fuel system would, and connect to the house’s hot-water heating system.
Photo contributed by Vincent’s Heating and Fuel Service

Beach Lake firm Buselli Plumbing Heating and Electric was also represented at the forum, sharing their experiences bringing pellet-burning technology to our area. They did the Cooperage installation, and also installed an integrated solar/pellet boiler system at the house of Jane Cyphers and Joe Levine where the open house was held. That system uses solar panels to provide hot water in summer, as well as to heat a water tank that stores summer heat and then emits it as summer transitions into winter. The tank is also connected to the pellet burner, which kicks in during the coldest months as the heat left over from summer fades.

The local angle

All the presenters emphasized the benefits of biomass heating in boosting the local economy. In fact, the Busellis and Vincents themselves are examples of the kind of small, local businesses that can expand by promoting this technology. And the source of biomass fuel, especially in a rural area like ours, can also be local. The wood for pellets comes from waste wood from lumber mills, chips from roadside work, old railroad ties and the like, or from fast-growing trees like a hybrid willow developed at Cornell University that, as discussed by Palko, is being grown, harvested and burned on the grounds of a wood chip-heated school.

But panelist Larry Hartpence, from Moscow, PA, probably created the most buzz among the crowd of any of the presenters with what may be the most sustainable option of all: grass. Hartpence is particularly enthusiastic about miscanthus, not as well known as switchgrass but with a btu yield five times as great per acre. It is also much easier to compress into briquettes, making it possible to develop portable compression equipment—a development Hartpence is actively pursuing that would make the whole life cycle of the fuel hyper local.

Hartpence stresses the opportunities miscanthus could present for our hard-pressed farmers, desperately in need of a cash crop. Planting is difficult, involving rhizomes rather than seeds, and four years are needed for it to mature; but Hartpence says he has seen statistics showing that a single acre of otherwise marginal land can produce enough fuel to heat a farm house for a winter.

A number of landowners at the open house following the forum were obviously intrigued, and asked Hartpence whether it might be possible for them to provide their land to farmers who could grow and harvest miscanthus from it, paying the landowners by giving them enough briquettes to heat their homes for a winter, and making a profit by selling the rest.

Find out more:
Michael T. Palko, PA Bureau of Forestry, 570/326-6020
Vincent’s Heating and Fuel Service, 315/826-3864
Larry Hartpence, Hartpence Farms, 570/842-6464
Buselli Plumbing Heating and Electric, 570/729-7791