Wood pellet stove

Wood pellets that will be used in the stove that heats one of Farmer Lee Richardson's poultry houses. (Hairston,Kim, Baltimore Sun / June 25, 2012)

Lee Richardson is a pioneer of sorts in taking a new look at a very old energy source.

The Wicomico County poultry farmer just finished installing a commercial-sized wood pellet stove to heat one of his chicken houses in Willards, east of Salisbury. When his next flock of chicks arrives from Perdue, Richardson will test how the wood-warmed birds fare compared with those raised in a neighboring house, which is heated by burning propane gas.

"We're going to run it for a year and see what happens," Richardson said.

Wood, humanity's earliest fuel for keeping warm, is being touted these days as the latest thing in renewable energy: a greener, often cheaper way to heat a home or building than burning oil or propane or consuming coal-fired electricity. It's also less expensive to buy and install than solar panels or geothermal systems, advocates say.

"It's the workhorse of renewable energy in Europe and should be in the United States," said William Strauss, president of a Maine-based consulting firm specializing in what it calls "bioenergy." He spoke recently at a day-long conference in Annapolis aimed at encouraging more use of wood in Maryland to heat homes, offices, schools and even hospitals.

Two-thirds of the renewable energy generated in Europe comes from burning wood or other plant-based material, Strauss said, and it has caught on in parts of the United States, particularly in colder states. About a third of students in Vermont, for instance, go to schools heated by burning wood chips or pellets, advocates said. Some schools and health centers in Pennsylvania also have converted boilers to use wood as a fuel.

Maryland is using wood to provide heat and power at an Eastern Shore prison, the Eastern Correctional Institute in Princess Anne. But beyond that initiative, taken 25 years ago, there's been little done to encourage wood-based energy in the state.

That's beginning to change. The Maryland Energy Administration is offering $400 rebates to homeowners who put in new, cleaner-burning wood stoves and $600 rebates for modern pellet stoves. And it's provided a $250,000 demonstration grant to a commercial greenhouse in Carroll County to help it pay for switching its heating plant to burn wood.

"We're pro-biomass," said Abigail Ross Hopper, Gov. Martin O'Malley's energy adviser and acting director of the state energy agency.

Biomass — plant material or agricultural waste used as fuel — is "an important piece of a diverse energy mix" the administration is trying to develop for Maryland, Hopper said.

"It's cheap. It's clean. It's renewable," said Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat whose unsuccessful effort to legislate financial incentives for residential wood and pellet stoves inspired the O'Malley administration's initiative.

Indeed, Mizeur believes that increasing the use of wood and other plant-based materials for fuel is key if Maryland hopes to achieve its legally mandated goal of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022.

A coalition of state agencies, nonprofit groups and private businesses believes more needs to be done to realize wood's potential in Maryland. It wants to see expanded incentives for homeowners, businesses and institutions to switch to wood heat, and to clear away what it contends are outmoded environmental restrictions on commercial-scale wood-burning boilers and furnaces.

"Everywhere I go I see scrap wood," said Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat who believes there's a large untapped reservoir of urban wood waste that could be used productively instead of being taken to the dump.

Generating electricity from biomass already qualifies for lucrative "renewable energy credits" under Maryland law, but Stein said he would like to see wood heat qualify for credits as well, helping to pay homeowners and businesses to install or convert their existing heating systems.

In addition to saving consumers money, advocates say, growth in heating with wood will help sustain the state's wood products industry and generate jobs while tapping an abundant renewable resource, state woodlands.

One Maryland company that would benefit from an expansion of wood heating is American Wood Fibers. Headquartered in Columbia, the firm has plants across the country and bills itself as the nation's largest supplier of wood shavings and other wood byproducts for a variety of uses. The company has been selling wood byproducts for industrial fuel for 50-plus years, but started making pellets about seven years ago. It uses a pellet-burning boiler to provide heat and some power for its plant in Jessup, which processes wood shavings and sawdust for sale as pet and horse bedding.

"We didn't necessarily think 45 years ago that we were in the energy business," said Stephen Faehner, vice president of industrial and bioenergy sales and son of the company's founder. "We just called ourselves a wood fiber company that was involved in boiler fuel. We've always sold wood for energy, but lately it's gotten a lot more sexy."

Right now, though, the company doesn't produce wood fuel in Maryland. Its Virginia plant is the nearest source.