by Heather Rae

Installment 1: Fuel Switching

Mounds of firewood dot the backroads of Maine, like warts on a toad. This old house will make use of the large maple that fell on my husband’s land; it’s mostly cut into mis-shapen hunks that will fit into the old leaky Home Atlantic wood stove that commands center stage of a front room.

Last year, the price of a full seasoned cord of wood in my area was $200. In July of this year, the firewood guy, Nate, told me the price had reached to $280, delivered; in the southern part of the State, it’s even higher. (Nate is young with a quiet, slow, gentle demeanor; he has lumberjack muscles on a large frame, a Boxer named Gus, and a big truck…and he attends to conversations with focused interest; that is, he’s sexy, which is why a close friend in her 40s, on vacation in her home state of Maine, eagerly asked Nate more about the burn qualities of ash, oak (etc) than she ever knew she cared when we ran into Nate one summer night at the local pub.)

A firewood delivery from Nate is about the only sexy aspect of heating a home through one of Maine’s long, cold winters. With the rise and dip of fuel prices, Mainers want to talk fuel switching. Politicians frantically cobble together ideas for weatherization and fuel assistance and homeowner loans. (As if these ideas are new. They are not; my colleague who worked with the State’s energy office decades ago retrieved his files from storage…same issues, same solutions. All put into the deep freeze for decades.)

In the frenzy that’s built up over the last several weeks, I wonder, ‘what was the price point where homeowners and politicos began to freak out?’ Was it when gas at the pump reached $2.49 or was it $3.99? Was the ‘tipping point’ when fuel merchants like the one in my small rural town started to post the price of gas at the 1/2 gallon (like a luxurious cheese priced at the 1/4 pound)? Was it when the merchants resorted to writing in the $4 before the decimals, because they lacked enough “4s”? Was it when homeowners got the shocking news that the pre-pay price for #2 heating oil, the primary heating source for Mainers, might be $5.50?

Here in Maine, the price of heating fuel is top of mind. Fuel trucks rumble past my house ever day. The price of heating oil is posted nearly everywhere one turns. A portion of the State in the south can receive distributed natural gas, but for the majority of us, it’s a smorgasbord of fuel options, and Mainers do get creative. When it comes to heating, Yankee independence, individualism and ingenuity kick in.

But when it comes to fuel switching, I wonder, do they really think they can beat the fuel markets, and by extension save money over the long haul, by purchasing and installing new heating appliances that run on different fuels? There’s lots of talk about pellet stoves, to make use of the domestic biomass prevalent in Maine: wood…the price of which I’ve already noted has increased significantly, apparently tracking increases in oil.

Around the time we ran into Nate this summer, the State which publishes a round-up of the price of heating oil (usually only in cold months, but now in the summer because of, you know, TheFreakOut), the price of #2 heating oil hovered around $4.70. The price of #2 heating oil, as of the State’s August 8 round-up, had dropped to $4.00 (down $.42 from the week prior).

There are ample reasons to avoid burning fossil fuels (climate change for one, a concern which has been drowned out by TheFreakOut). Beholden to wood, pellet or mis-shapen logs, oil from domestic or foreign drilling, we’re still at the mercy of the global markets. There are rumors that the State’s solar incentives (rebates for PV and thermal) will receive an infusion of funding (they were left to languish, depleted early in the year). The sun comes up. The sun goes down. Every day in Maine. And it’s a fuel that’s free. Funny, that.

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