They use a lot of fuel oil in Maine, but that may be changing.

I was sitting at the Sheraton Hotel bar in beautiful Portsmouth, NH, some years ago, looking out the window at the bridge that crosses over into the great state of Maine. I had never been to Maine and its sheer size loomed over me like a tough guy. I had just driven to Portsmouth from Long Island, which is a good long drive, but as I sat there, I realized that if I were to cross that bridge, it would be an even longer drive from my barstool to the top of that enormous state. So I took another sip and stayed put.

The first time I went to Maine to do a seminar I stopped at a rest area on the highway, and on my way to the men’s room I noticed a sign over the garbage cans. It read, “It is not healthy to rummage through the garbage cans.” I had never seen such a sign, and I thought it was pretty funny. So the next day, I mentioned it to the guys from Maine who were at my seminar. “Never been to a state where they have to officially tell folks not to play with the garbage,” I said.

A burly contractor in the back of the room immediately said, “That’s for you tourists.” Lesson learned.

I’ve been back to Maine a bunch of times since then and I’ve always enjoyed myself. The people who live there have a different concept of cold than I have. They think nothing of traveling great distances to do a service call in what I would call a blizzard, but what they would call flurries. They carry more stock on their trucks than heating pros do in some other parts of the country I’ve visited, and when it comes to solving heating problems, they have the sort of creativity that comes only from listening to those who came before them. I like these people.

They also use a lot of fuel oil in Maine, but that may be changing.

This is on my mind because it’s spring as I write, and that means I get to go to the annual National Association of Oil Heat Service Managers (NAOHSM) convention. I’ll see all my oil-heat friends at that show, including the ones from Maine. There aren’t many natural gas lines in that sprawling state. Folks have always had a choice between oil and propane, and wood, of course. Oil usually won out in recent years because it’s traditionally been a less expensive fuel, and it’s easier to burn oil than it is to chop wood.

But things have been changing in Maine lately, and that has me wondering about the future of oil heat, both there and in the rest of the Northeast states, where oil has long been such a prominent fuel.

Last January,The Portland Press Heraldreported that the percentage of Mainers who were burning fuel oil to heat their homes had shrunk to levels not seen since 1980. Pellet stoves and pellet boilers were taking the place of oil in a lot of homes, and natural gas was making steady inroads in the cities. Most Mainers were still using oil as their primary fuel (71.4% in 2009), but this was down from 80% in 2000.

Much of that had to do with the state and federal governments, which have been encouraging people to make the switch from oil, and to generally conserve by fixing the leaks in their homes. The government doesn’t seem to like fuel oil much, and there sure is a lot of wood in Maine. Oh, and pellets are easier to deal with than cord wood. Pellets come to your home by truck, just as oil does. Pellets are cheaper than oil.

The article pointed out that it’s difficult to say whether this is a long-lasting trend or just a tick in the energy market. It mentions that a similar thing happened in 1990 when the price of oil was high. The past two years also brought tax-credit incentives to people who wanted to buy a pellet stove or a pellet boiler. That was part of the federal economic stimulus program. Those incentives aren’t around anymore, so we’ll see what happens.

Oh, and the news also reported that many of those who switched to pellets also kept their old oil-fired equipment in place. You’d expect Mainers to do that. They like choice.

While I was reading about that, I noticed that Colby College in Waterville, ME, decided to just say no to the 1.1 million gallons of oil they’ve been burning each year. They’re switching to a biomass plant that will burn low-grade forest waste and debris. They say the payback period for their $11.25 million investment will be between six and 10 years. Not bad. They also say they’re doing this because they want the campus to be carbon neutral by 2015.

Lots of colleges across America are thinking that way these days, but this one’s in Maine.

The University of Southern Maine, the state’s second-largest university, is also giving up oil, but this time in favor of natural gas. They’re predicting savings of $315,000 this year, and they also commented on how it was going to reduce their carbon footprint. Colleges love to talk about carbon footprints.

So what do you think? Is this a tick in the market or a trend? I’m going to keep my eye on Maine because I think that as Maine goes, so goes the rest of the oil-heat business. There’s opportunity here if you’re paying attention.

Oh, I’m also going to keep watching because change can be very amusing, especially when there’s government funding involved. The federal Department of Health and Human Services recently gave the Maine State Housing Authority a $1.1 million grant to help pay for alternative energy systems in the homes of low-income people. Once done, the state did a study to see how it all went.

They found solar panels installed behind trees, covered with snow, shaded by barns, and not oriented toward the sun. Hey, that happens.

They also found small wind turbines behind trees and sheltered from the wind, or shut down for safety reasons and then not turned back on when the wind was strong enough to make the blades turn. It happens.

And there were a bunch of heat pumps that the homeowners turned off because they were just too noisy (the heat pumps, not the homeowners). Normal, right?

The report stated that only 20% of the alternative systems put into the homes of poor families showed enough of a change in energy use (mainly electric) to justify the cost of the new system. Bummer.

Dale McCormick, who is the director of the Maine State Housing Authority, told theBangor Daily Newsthat they installed the alternative energy systems into their public housing because there was a crisis due to high oil prices. “We could have managed and monitored this better, but all hell was breaking loose,” he said. “Heating oil was $4.50 a gallon and we were in crisis, as was the whole world.”

You have to do something, right?

So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • In places where there are alternatives to high-priced oil, chances are folks will be choosing those alternatives in the days to come.

  • Colleges and universities will make changes to save themselves money, and then say they’re doing it for the planet because that’s what students like to hear.

  • When it comes to alternative energy systems (and federal funding for same), somebody should be keeping a closer eye on those installers.

  • Smart wholesalers should be looking into pellet stoves and boilers.

  • And finally, it’s not healthy to rummage through garbage cans.

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