North Country
1:06 pm
Tue July 3, 2012

Plan To Build Austrian Pellet Boilers In US Could Help Forest Economy

In a move that would be good for the region’s wood-based economy Maine Energy Systems of Bethel, Maine plans to start building automated, wood-pellet boilers in the United States instead of importing them from Europe, says Les Otten, founder and chief executive officer.

“We will do the majority of the manufacture and assembly in the United States,” he told NHPR. “There is no reason we can’t be competitive globally.”

Maine Energy sells boiler systems made by the Austrian company, Okofen.

While the boilers are assembled in Bethel many of the components are being imported.

Otten said a major exception is the heavy, steel portion of the boiler for a commercial unit.  It is made in Pennsylvania.

Those commercial systems currently make up about 50 percent of Maine Energy’s sales, said Otten.

The company also sells smaller residential units.

Otten said Maine Energy Systems recently worked out a deal allowing it to produce as much of the Okofen system in the United States as he wants.

“What we have done is set our company up to be able to expand from four or five hundred boilers a year up to 20,000 or 30,000 boilers a year,” he said.

Otten said growth of the wood-pellet boiler industry will depend on factors including:

* The price of heating oil.

* Whether there are renewable-energy government incentives.

* Whether “people on their own will come to the conclusion that this is a less-expensive way to heat their homes long term.”

Maine Energy System now has 15 employees and Otten said the number of new manufacturing jobs would depend on sales volume.

But he said additional jobs would be created due to associated work. That includes providing components, installing the Okofens and providing the wood pellets.

The wood pellets for the units come from Maine and New Hampshire.

Otten hopes to find suppliers for the needed components in New England.

If people current using heating oil switch to Okofens the deal could mean thousands of jobs in the region, he said.

The Okofen high-tech boiler automatically draws wood pellets from a storage bin, cleans itself and automatically collects the ash in a separate container.

“It is a great, user-friendly system. It is probably the gold standard,” said Eric Kingsley, an analyst with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, which has offices in Maine and New Hampshire.

But Okofens are expensive, Kingsley noted.

Otten said a residential boiler  – installed – can cost between $15,000 and $20,000.  But because the wood pellets are significantly cheaper than heating oil the units will pay for themselves, he said.

Maine Energy says it costs $1.96 for enough premium wood pellets provide the same amount of energy as a gallon of heating oil.