The Portland Press Herald

ReVision Energy in Portland sells a solar hot-water system that can offset roughly 250 gallons of oil a year in a typical boiler. The system goes for about $11,000, but federal and state tax breaks can knock $4,300 off the buyer’s cost.

ReVision Heat, its sister company, sells a $15,000 wood pellet boiler that can replace 1,000 gallons of oil — four times as much as the solar panels. But there’s no state tax benefit, and the federal tax credit is capped at $300.

Superior tax incentives for solar is one reason ReVision saw $8 million in solar equipment sales last year, compared with $500,000 in wood.

This government policy is being questioned in a new report from a Maryland-based nonprofit group formed to promote wood heating, the Alliance for Green Heat. It calculated that a $1,000 tax incentive for a clean-burning wood or pellet stove could offset as much fossil fuel as a $10,000 solar rebate.


Wood heat, the report said, provides 80 percent of all residential renewable energy in America and is within reach of middle- and lower-income families. Solar produces 15 percent and is unaffordable to many people.

“My message,” said John Ackerly, the alliance’s president, “is that incentives should be technology neutral, and consumers should be given a choice.”

The report’s conclusions are of interest in Maine, where a sultry summer soon will turn into another expensive heating season. Maine is the country’s most forested state, but also the most dependent on heating oil. Roughly seven in 10 homes burn oil, but only one in 10 uses wood as a primary heat source, according to the latest census figures.

Better renewable energy incentives aimed at the cleanest, most-efficient wood stoves and boilers could help shift that equation, the alliance’s report says, as could programs to help residents switch out old, polluting wood burners.

“We really overlook huge portions of our population when we overlook wood,” Ackerly said. “And we’re not offsetting the amount of fossil fuels we could for the amount of incentive money.”

Solar energy has many benefits. It creates no pollution in use and the fuel — sunlight — is free. But when it comes to government incentives, wood has lost out to solar, wind and geothermal, Ackerly and others say, because the wood-heat industry is made up of small businesses that lack corporate lobbying resources and political clout.


For instance: Newer solar, wind and geothermal systems receive federal tax credits of 30 percent, with no dollar cap, and can qualify on vacation homes.

Wood also suffers from the air pollution stigma caused by older stoves and outdoor boilers. That’s a major challenge, the alliance conceded. From 60 to 75 percent of the 12 million stoves in operation today are too old to meet federal standards for particle emissions.

“It’s hard to say ‘dirty solar,’ but there is dirty wood heat,” said Pat Coon, a co-founder of ReVision Energy.

An experienced solar installer, Coon takes a broad view of what he sees as the challenge of getting the state’s 400,000 homes off oil. Solar panels and weatherization will help, he said, but they can’t accomplish that goal.

Wood, however, could make a major contribution, especially pellets, if more-efficient delivery methods can lower the cost.

Cordwood, the traditional form of wood heat, can offset a lot of oil, he said, but it involves too much effort to become a total solution for most households.


Government tax policy is part of the equation, Coon acknowledges. Solar rebates helped turn ReVision into a leading installation company.

“Government’s best role is being a catalyst,” he said. “We now have a solar installation industry. Government hasn’t done that for wood, and we don’t have a wood industry.”

But others see the marketplace creating a wood industry, although slowly.

“It’s a brand new industry in the United States and we’re starting from zero,” said Les Otten, president of Maine Energy Systems in Bethel.

Otten and two partners formed the company three years ago to import automated, high-efficiency pellet boilers. Business was slow last year, dragged down by the poor economy. This year is different, with consumers spooked by volatile oil prices.

Maine Energy Systems is on track to install more than 200 boilers, Otten said, with the prospect of much stronger growth next year.


Most jobs are commercial and municipal, with 70 percent of the work out of state. Maine customers include the Blue Hill public library, SAD 74 in Anson and Gardiner Public Works.

Homeowners have a harder time coming up with the capital, Otten said, even if they can save $2,000 or more a year on oil.

In Europe, where pellet boilers are common, the industry grew rapidly over the past eight years, thanks to generous financial incentives. A former Republican candidate for governor, Otten said the debt crisis makes it hard today to ask “with a straight face” for government tax breaks.

“Right now, the cost of fuel is an extraordinary incentive,” he said.

At the Alliance for Green Heat, Ackerly acknowledged that the federal debt and state budget shortfalls make new tax breaks for wood unrealistic. But to the extent that energy incentives do exist, they should help bring down the cost of equipment, create jobs and offset fossil fuels.

“Both solar and wood do all three of these,” he said.

Tux Turkel — 791-6462

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