Long, cold winter leads to wood pellet shortage


Vineyard retail outlets that sell wood pellets have exhausted their supplies and left customers who use the recycled wood product to heat their homes scrambling to find enough fuel to stymie the cold. The shortage is being felt throughout New England and is the result of an unexpectedly long, cold winter, and an increase in wood pellet stove use, according to industry sources.

Robert Donovan, who heats his house on Indian Hill in West Tisbury with a wood pellet stove, was surprised when he was unable to locate wood pellets at Ace Hardware in Vineyard Haven, his usual source, or John Keene Excavation, which brings trailer loads of pellets to the Island regularly, when they are available.

“I called around the Island and no one had pellets,” Mr. Donovan told The Times in a telephone call last week as he prepared to go off-Island to buy fuel. “I called a couple of dozen places in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I called manufacturers way up in Maine and just got voice messages saying ‘we are currently out of pellets.’”

He found one supplier on the Cape that has pellets, with a five bag limit per customer on purchases. That would last him about three days with the freezing temperatures expected this week. ”I have high ceilings. I burn about a bag and a half a day,” he said.

Mr. Donovan’s perseverance paid off, he said in a second call to The Times made later the same day.

“I just snagged pellets way up in Holbrook,” he said, in a call from his cell phone, as he was on his way back with his heavily laden car. “They have a 15 bag limit but when they heard I was hoping to pick up some bags for other Islanders they let me buy 40. My car is not made to carry a ton.”

Back on the Island with his pellets, Mr. Donovan was sympathetic to those in the same situation.

“I feel sorry for others who use pellet stoves as their primary heat source and don’t have flexible work schedules that allow them the time to hunt down pellets like I do,” said Mr. Donovan, “It is my only heat source.”

After this pellet crisis, Mr. Donovan says he is making other plans.

“After this winter, I will be using the stove as my secondary source,” he said. “I’m installing a propane/heat pump system, a mini-split system, before next winter.”

Precious pellets

John Keene Excavation office manager Darlene Oberg said many customers buy pellets by the 50 bag pallet. The West Tisbury company brings truckloads of 22 pallets to the Island every winter. She said that some of their customers have not run out yet, but that their Rhode Island supplier has. She doesn’t know when Keene will be able to buy more.

At Ace Hardware, a sign on the door Friday announced no pellets and no ice melt. Ismael “Izzy” Calixto said Ace sold out its last delivery of 1,200 pounds, 30 bags, in three days last week and won’t have any more pellets until April 9.

In Oak Bluffs, Reliable Market’s Robert Pacheco has sold pellets for only two years. This year he has not been able to buy enough to keep them in stock. He buys pellets from a grocery distribution center in New Hampshire.

“Sales have doubled this year,“ he said. “We got into selling pellets because we had requests from customers. This year, sales have snowballed but that’s come to a screeching halt. We sell out every week. We haven’t been able to buy enough to keep them in stock.”

He said his supplier started limiting sales about four weeks ago. Last week, Reliable was limited to one pallet of 50 bags that sold out in a couple of days.

“My supplier said there won’t be any for our Sunday night trailer, and she said that for our Wednesday night trailer, she will do the best she can. Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he said. “We hope to have some by the end of next week.”

He said he has tried other suppliers in Massachusetts and in Maine but hasn’t been able to find anyone who has pellets to sell to new customers. His primary supplier told him that the pellet manufacturer in Maine has nothing in reserve.

“I was told they’re packing to fill orders for trucks that are waiting,” he said. “They have no back stock at all.”

An article in an industry online trade publication, “Biomass Magazine,” attributes the shortage of pellets to an industry wide failure to predict the longer and colder winter and the increased use of wood pellet stoves, not to a shortage of production capacity. Much of the industry has operated at an average operating capacity of 50 to 60 percent for much of the winter, according to the article, while the average user is burning close to twice as much fuel.

Wood pellet stoves are advertised as an easier, cleaner, and more efficient heat source than conventional wood stoves. They are generally smaller, and the bags of pellets are about the size of a large dog food bag, weighing 40 pounds, so they are easier to store than firewood. The pellets, made of compressed dry wood, and often recycled materials, are fed into the stove usually by an electric feeder. The fire is relatively easy to start. Depending on the stove’s hopper size, it may need to be loaded only once a day.

The fire is contained in a heat box inside the unit, and the combustion is hotter and cleaner than would be the case with wood, with minimum of smoke, which creates considerably less ash and less creosote than firewood does.