BY TUX TURKEL

Staff Writer

The sound of heating systems coming to life this month is a rude awakening, following a warm and sunny summer; but it’s a sound that’s being heard less often in Maine, when it comes to oil heat.

The total amount of heating oil burned in Maine households was cut nearly in half from 2005 to 2010, to about 189 million gallons.

In fact, oil consumption in Maine homes has declined to levels not seen since at least 1984, federal figures show.

The flight from oil coincides with an almost-steady rise in retail prices since 2009, when the recession briefly reversed an upward trend that began two years earlier.

It also reflects broader efforts in Maine business and industry to reduce oil use. Overall, Maine burned 838 million gallons of oil in 2003, apparently an all-time high. In 2010, consumption was down to 501 million gallons, on par with the amount burned in 1991, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that were analyzed by the Portland Press Herald.

Data from 2011 aren’t available yet; but the warm winter, and average prices that topped $3.50 a gallon, are expected to have caused further declines.

Maine officials often cite the state’s highest-in-the-nation dependence on oil heat, and the effect of rising oil prices on household budgets. The latest statistics, however, show that stepped-up efforts to weatherize homes, install efficient oil burners and switch to other fuels — namely natural gas, propane and wood — are lessening oil’s historic grip faster than anticipated.

“When people have options, they will respond,” said Ken Fletcher, who heads the Governor’s Energy Office. “Heating with oil is convenient, but economics are driving what people are doing.”

As part of Maine’s Energy Action Plan, the energy office set a goal in 2004 of cutting Maine’s overall oil use in half by 2050. That goal now appears timid.

Based on the pace at which home and business owners are quitting oil or supplementing it with other sources, the target could be hit in the next few years, Fletcher estimates.

The trend may accelerate this year. The average price of heating oil last week in Greater Portland was $3.50 a gallon, according to Maineoil.com. In Down East Maine, the average was $3.73.

If those prices end up reflecting seasonal averages, a household in Portland that burns 750 gallons in a typical winter will spend $2,625. If the price reaches $4 a gallon, as it did last year in some parts of the state, a typical household could spend $3,000.

The mounting cost of oil heat has prompted businesses to offer more products and services that are speeding up the conversion to other fuels.

“It’s really price-dependent,” said William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics, in Bethel.

Strauss is an economist who studies and promotes wood-energy technologies. He’s also a director of Maine Energy Systems, which manufactures wood-pellet boilers. The company’s Austrian-designed central heating systems are popular in Europe, but the $20,000 price deters wider use in the United States.

As an incentive, the company is advertising a deal that locks the delivery price of pellets at an oil equivalent of $1.99 a gallon, for two years.

A stable, low price appeals to homeowners such as Chris and Molly Just, who had a Maine Energy Systems wood-fired boiler installed last year in their 70-year-old home in Pownal.

The home’s aging oil-fired boiler was failing, and the couple looked at options including a new oil unit, propane and geothermal heat.

Propane might have been the least costly up front, but Chris Just said he wanted a renewable fuel.

“If we were going to switch from oil, propane seemed like a lateral move,” he said.

Just said he was happy with the system’s performance last winter; it burned cleanly and was quiet. He went through 9 tons of wood pellets, and he expects his ongoing weatherization efforts to cut the volume.

ReVision Energy in Portland, which sells and installs solar panels, developed a subsidiary devoted to pointing the way to “the road off oil” for homes and businesses.

“I wake up every morning trying to figure out how I can chisel away more oil consumption,” said Lee Landry, co-founder of ReVision Heat.

ReVision Heat sells and installs high-efficiency heaters, including boilers that burn wood pellets, natural gas and propane. It also optimizes the performance of oil units, to cut consumption by as much as 10 percent.

Business this year was strong through the spring and summer, which is unusual, Landry said. He hired three people in June and soon may add installers.

Until recently, Landry said, many customers were switching to gas boilers. Lately, there’s been interest in a new generation of super-efficient electric heat pumps, which can tap the warmth in outdoor air. Several Maine companies are advertising units manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric, which also provide air conditioning in the summer.

Portland-based Dead River Co., the largest oil and propane dealer in northern New England, is promoting the Mitsubishi unit, even though the technology competes with the oil heat the company has focused on for decades.

“To stay in this business, we have to be open to everything that helps customers stay warm at an affordable price,” said Robert Moore, the company’s president.

Dead River has been especially bullish on propane, which Moore expects will replace heating oil over time for homes that aren’t near natural gas lines.

Dead River also is expected to partner this fall with Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, which distributes a high-efficiency electric heater that stores warmth overnight in dense bricks. Moore declined to discuss details, but said his company will install the heaters, which are common in other states.

In Maine’s commercial sector, oil use fell from 121 million gallons in 2005 to 88.5 million in 2010, according to federal data.

The most dramatic declines could still be ahead, if natural gas pipelines proposed for the Kennebec Valley and northern Penobscot County are built and connect to paper mills and other large manufacturers.

A company in Washington County illustrates the potential. Woodland Pulp LLC in Baileyville hooked up last year to a nearby intrastate natural gas pipeline. Before the conversion, the mill burned 10.3 million gallons of heavy oil annually.

The conversion cost $12 million, but will pay for itself in lower fuel costs by sometime this year.