May 26, 2020
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Big retailers can’t meet demand for wood fuel pellets

The harsh winter and increased demand for wood fuel pellets has some big box retailers struggling to keep adequate supplies on store shelves, although Maine mills that produce the pellets are cranking them out steadily.

“We are experiencing wood pellet shortages across the Northeast,” Tara Gudger, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s in Mooresville, N.C., said Wednesday. The shortages have affected the company’s 11 stores in Maine, she said.

“As we near the end of a winter season that experienced many large winter storms, we’re working with our suppliers to quickly replenish store shelves with wood pellets and other types of winter products to help during preparation and recovery,” added Gudger.

Pamela Pultz, owner of the Agway store in Dover Foxcroft, said she ran out of pellets about two weeks ago. “We have no pellets to sell,” Pultz, who purchases pellets from Agway and a manufacturer in Maine, said Friday.

Pultz blamed the shortage on the cold winter and higher usage. “That’s what it is. They can’t make them fast enough, really.”

Pultz, who is expecting a shipment of pellets next week, said customers are “not too happy” about the short supply. “I think they understand,” she added, that demand is higher this winter.

Shortages at chain retailers have benefited his company, said Bob Maurais, president of Southern Maine Renewable Fuels in Wells and Windham, which sells pellets and also alternative wood fuel products for wood stoves and fireplaces.

In the past week and a half, his company has been picking up customers who usually buy pellets from big box stores. “And they’ve been totally out,” said Maurais. The chain stores did not order enough for this cold winter, he added.

“We don’t have a huge inventory,” said Maurais, but the company, which buys bagged pellets from Maine and Canadian businesses, has an adequate supply for its customers.

“What we have found [is that] people plan their purchases with last year’s winter in mind,” said Maurais. Since the winter has been harsher than previous heating seasons, there has not been enough supply — at the vendor, retail or homeowner level.

Tim Dysart, vice president of Dysart’s Energy in Bangor, said the company gets a truckload of pellets in 40-pound or 50-pound bags daily from a supplier in Quebec, but customers buy them immediately.

He also acknowledged that some big box stores are out of pellets, “which has made it difficult” for some consumers. However, Dysart predicted the shortage will be no more than a “little blip” because the end of winter is approaching and temperatures will be rising.

Deborah Linkletter, office manager for Maine Woods Pellet Co., a manufacturer in Athens, blamed the shortage on consumers who are not “planning ahead” and purchasing a supply of pellets in advance of winter. In addition, it has been a cold winter, and more people are turning to pellet-burning heating appliances, she suggested. “But they have to plan ahead.”

Maine Woods Pellet Company produces pellets 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said.

Corinth Wood Pellets also has been producing “right out straight,” said chief financial officer Ken Carle. “This place here has probably been running harder with more production than it has the past few years,” he said.

Some retail chains place orders for pellets between March and May for the following winter, observed Carle. Recent winters were milder, leading them to order similar quantities. “I think they just underestimated the demand that was going to be out there,” he said.

“This cold weather has left them a little bit on the short side,” added Carle.

Maine’s four pellet manufacturers also wish they had produced more last summer and fall, said Bill Bell, executive director of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association.

“It’s not just the weather,” said Bell, and that big retailers erred in ordering pellets on the expectation of more mild temperatures. Pellet heating systems have gained in popularity for homeowners as well as for schools and municipal buildings in recent years, so there is increased demand for pellets, he said.


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