Yankee ingenuity intact, N.E. oil dealers are strongly into solar sales

If Charlie Burkhardt has his way, solar energy in New England will soon be dominated by heating-oil dealers. He's not talking through his hat.

Members of the New England Fuel Institute, a heating-oil dealers' trade association, performed 784 solar installations last year. Mr. Burkhardt, NEFI's executive vice-president, expects to see twice that many in 1980. And he's hoping for 5,000 by 1981.

What's more, the NEFI Technical Training Center here is graduating more solar technicians this year than oil-heat technicians.

The important thing about New England's heating-oil dealers is that they are dealers. They aren't necessarily committed just to oil. In fact, a recent survey of NEFI's 1,100-plus member firms showed that nearly 60 percent of them were in the coal business 40 to 50 years ago. And 18 percent were in the ice business around the turn of the century.

The point is that, over the years, NEFI members have been retail energy merchants, selling the latest technology -- whatever that has been. The evolutionary process continues: eight members have gone back into the coal business within the last 14 months.

There are 1,900 fuel-oil dealers in New England. Individual dealerships fill columns and columns of Yellow Pages -- in the Boston area, for example, they run from Abbott Discount Fuel Company in Wellesley to Zamagni & Sons in Quincy. These small businesses are fiercely competitive and more adaptable to change than monopoly gas and electric utilities, locked into large-scale power production.

Solar energy hasn't developed as it should, Mr. Burkhardt maintains, because sluggish Small business dynamism needs to be harnessed to help America meet its energy crisis, he says, and gearing up dealers for solar or other new technologies is just a matter of "training the army for a new weapon."

The utilities, however, are a bit skeptical. If oil dealers are diversifying , they suggest, it's not that they're so energy conscious. It's because they see the handwriting on the wall. "With the way oil prices have gone up, a lot of dealers are going out of business," notes a spokesman for one New England gas company. "If I were an oil dealer, I'd be looking for something else to get into, too."

And a spokeswoman for the New England Electric System says that electric utilities care as much as anybody else about breaking US dependence on foreign oil. New England Electric is "committed to solar" with a 15- year plan calling for, among other things, 100 megawatts generated by solar power by 1990.

Given New England's great dependence on oil heat and its slow rate of building replacement, the region's fuel-oil dealers don't have to worry about their market disappearing.

(The price of natural gas is expected to catch up with that of oil within a couple of years. This rise should slow, or halt, homeowners' conversions from oil to gas heat -- up sharply in recent years -- at least until oil prices outstrip gas again.)

But with the profitability of heating oil so static, even as prices rise, oil dealers can easily be enticed into selling solar. "We can make as much profit installing two or three solar panels as we do selling a comparable supply of heating oil in eight years," says Mr. Burkhardt.

Wood-chip gasification is another new technology oil dealers are looking into. With the Northeast Solar Energy Center and the Vermont Wood Energy corporation, NEFI has a federal contract to develop four prototype gasifiers to be used in conjunction with oil furnaces. The process has been used in industry for years in Sweden, but never for residential heating. It involves "baking" the pellets to break them down into clean-burning gases.

The lack of "particulate effluent," as dirty smoke is called, is no small matter. New Englanders have been burning so much wood lately that environmentalists are worried about smoke pollution.

The prototypes, due for delivery late this summer, will be given a six-month test run in four houses, two in Vermont and two in New Hampshire.

Mr. Burkhardt gives the prototypes a 50-50 chance of working well enough to warrant further research and development. But if they do work out, he says, his fuel dealers will be ready to jump into action as wood-pellet dealers as well.

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