AUGUSTA — Ken Ellis converted the heating in his 23 greenhouses from oil to wood pellets three years ago.

The owner of Sunset Greenhouses in Fairfield said that while his consumption of pellets is still significant — 172 tons a year — his use of heating oil, which he uses only as a backup, has been dramatically reduced.

“I burned 35,000 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil and that’s been cut down to 9,000 gallons,” Ellis said. “My total fuel bill is below half.”

At the Maine Agricultural Trades Show on Wednesday, Ellis joined a panel of Maine growers who have installed geothermal, wood and solar thermal heating systems. The three-day agricultural event at the Augusta Civic Center ends today.

Maine Rural Partners sponsored the program on renewable energy. The panel discussed energy assessments, on-site audits and financing options.

Ellis converted the hot-air furnaces in his greenhouses to burning wood pellets using the Pelix, a wood pellet burner popular in Europe. Ellis said a ton of pellets costs between $150 and $190.

Another member of the panel who owns a greenhouse in Thorndike installed solar panels to heat her germination tables with hot water.

Izzy Mckay of Half Moon Gardens said she grows between 60 and 70 pounds of mixed lettuce greens a week, which she sells mostly to school systems.

“It was important to keep a cash flow so I could pay my mortgage . . . so I worked on my energy costs,” Mckay said. “I have great southerly exposure, so I looked into solar panels.”

Her first attempt to qualify for a Rural Energy Development grant to help fund the project failed. She said the application process was too complicated.

She held up a thick notebook filled with pages of the application form she had to fill out.

“It was rejected for things like I didn’t give copies in triplicate,” and other frustrating issues, Mckay said. “Farm Energy Partners and Efficiency Maine helped the grant get completed. It was for $6,500 and it took 80 hours of work.”

She said the cost of the total project was $28,000 and the grant only covered 25 percent of that.

“I’m considered a small business,” she said. “There was this larger business (applying at the same time) and their grant application was only 18 pages. That left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Claudia Lowd of Maine Rural Partners said the process has been made simpler for smaller operations.

“Rural Development is all over the state,” Lowd said. “They actually will help you much more now.

“They know there’s an issue with these grants. They take a lot of work. There’s still these grants available, but they take 50 hours to write an application for $10,000.”

Lowd said growers need to educate themselves on what’s available in the way of financing and the different types of renewable energy.

She said the Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield has extended its course offerings in renewable energy.

The non-credit courses include solar heating, geothermal heating and cooling, biomass solid fuel, solar photovoltaic and small wind systems.

Dana Doran, director of the KVCC’s energy programs, manned a booth at the show. He said for 15 years the college has offered solar photovoltaic and solar heating classes.

“This year, we’re offering more for the general public, installers and designers,” Doran said. “The first class starts the end of February. In the past the classes always sold out. That’s because there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the use of renewable energy to offset costs. There’s more competition and the technology is more affordable.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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