Friday, June 28, 2013

Renewable Left Out of Heating Fuel Price Reports

For many years, the federal and state governments have issued monthly reports on the prices of fuels including winter heating fuels so that consumers, businesses, and the media have accurate information. Traditionally, this has meant prices of fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, propane, etc. Recently four states started to provide price information on a renewable fuel – wood pellets: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.

Advocates for renewable energy say it’s been a hard sell to get government bureaucracies to add wood pellets to their price reports. The most important reports come from the Energy Information Agency (EIA), which is part of the Department of Energy (DOE). However, the EIA collects their data from states, and unless states report on pellet prices, they say they can’t include it in federal reports.

State energy offices are stretched thin and some say they can’t take the extra work of including a fuel that may have more price fluctuations and not as many major retailers who can provide the price information. In New York, the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, a trade association is undertaking research and surveys to help the state start reporting on pellet prices. Other states where wood and pellets are a widespread heating fuel include Pennsylvania, the Great Lake states, and the Pacific Northwest.

Fossil fuels have received extensive government subsidies over the decades, but advocates of wood pellets say that these price reports can be seen as an informational subsidy. As federal and state agencies switch gears to include more information about renewable energy, this may result in less staff time spent on fossil fuels.

A example of this is a high profile report the EIA puts out every fall called the “Winter Fuel Outlook.” This annual report had never mentioned a word about firewood and pellets, America’s third most common heating fuel until last year. The report has always had extensive information about heating fuels, such as oil and propane, that provide fewer Btus to US homes than wood and pellets provide. The Alliance for Green Heat, Hearth & Home Technologies, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen and others pressed EIA to also include renewable fuels. The report did include some information about wood and pellets and EIA is likely going to increase their coverage in the 2013 report. Visit this page to read more on the EIA’s winter fuel outlook. 

A coalition of non-profit and industry groups is starting to call on state energy offices to urge them to include pellet and wood prices in their monthly reports. Below are details and links to the four states that currently report on pellet prices.

New Hampshire’s Office of Energy and Planning compares both wood pellets and cordwood to other fuel types such as natural gas, propane, and gasoline. The price/unit; heat content/unit (Btu); and price per million Btu are all compared between the different fuel types. The data is supposedly published weekly with the latest update being June 3rd, 2013. The website will also have historical fuel price data as well. The OEP notes that the price of firewood sold by the cord can vary widely depending on the location, time of year and quality of the wood being sold.

Vermont’s Public Service Department compares BTU/unit, efficiency, $/unit, and $/MMBtu between wood pellets, green cordwood, fuel oil, natural gas, propane, etc. The data is compiled into monthly reports from 01/08 to 06/13. Prices are collected on or about the first Monday of each month and reflect dealer discounts for cash or self-service. The cord wood information has not been updated since 11/11.

Maine’s Governor’s Energy Office conducts a weekly survey of fuel prices during the peak season between October and March. Information on the price of cordwood and wood pellets has been archived since October 9, 2012. The survey is released monthly during the rest of the year. It reports the weekly price averages of oil as compared to natural gas, propane, wood pellets, cordwood, and electricity.

Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs website provides detailed monthly fuel price averages of heating oil, propane, gasoline and diesel. For pellets, it only provides links to third party websites. These websites, of which is the most comprehensive, compile wood pellet retailers in Massachusetts, their contact information, the brands of pellets they sell, the corresponding price, and the date the price was last updated.

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