As an environmentally friendly means of heating a home, wood-burning pellet stoves are a hot item.
Because the wood comes from waste chips and sawdust that would otherwise be discarded, no trees are cut down to supply the wood pellets used as fuel.
Even better, burning the wood pellets does not contribute to global warming. They release no more carbon dioxide than if the wood had been left untouched to break down naturally in a forest.
And, of course, adding to the charm of pellet stoves is their appearance. Just like a conventional wood stove or a crackling fireplace, their gentle flickering flames give off a warm glow.
Though priced somewhat higher than other conventional heating devices, many new customers apparently feel the investment is well worth it.
One owner, a 55-year-old company worker from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture,
has a fully automated state-of-the-art pellet stove. It comes with a sensor that automatically feeds wooden pellets from the hopper into the combustion chamber when the fuel is low, while its thermostat adjusts the heat according to the room temperature, just like a fan heater.
The man switched to the pellet stove last November to replace an old kerosene heater.
Thanks to a special promotion for Iwate residents and a 50,000yen subsidy from the prefectural government, the man had to spend only 200,000 yen of his own money for the new stove, a model just released by Sunpot Co., based in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.
The happy owner commented: ``I grew up with a log stove, so I feel content just watching the flames. I did wonder if it was a bit too expensive, but I was won over by the added value of the features.''
The pellet stove heats every room on the first floor of his wood-frame home-the 10-tatami-mat living room, kitchen and even the extra six-tatami-mat room. And it does so automatically: A built-in timer switches the stove on.
The man's 55-year-old wife gushes: ``There's this wonderful cozy smell of burning wood. I can even bake bread. It's just great.''
Heat from the pellet stove reaches the second floor, too, keeping the whole house toasty warm. But the monthly heating bill is about 5,000 yen higher than last winter, when the family was mainly relying on kerosene.
The stove was developed as a collaborative effort between Sunpot and the prefecture-run Iwate Industrial Research Institute.
The stove adopts a forced flue system with an exhaust-supply vent that is driven through a wall. The stove is even designed to shut off in the event of an earthquake.
The company sold 100 units in the two months after its launch.
Prospective pellet-stove buyers had an array of choices this winter.
Shimotani Inc., in Gero, Gifu Prefecture, has a line of colorful pellet stoves for residential use, with special features such as a flame adjustment control and an ignition timer. So far, the company has sold about 50 units priced at around 300,000 yen each.
Kondo Tekko, from Miyata, Nagano Prefecture, has sold over 30 stoves with the good old potbellied look for 289,000 yen each.
Nikko Sekkei Co., in Hiroshima, has also rung up sales for about 20 small stoves for around 300,000 yen apiece.
In 2003, Ishimura Kogyo, based in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, came out with a pellet stove that doesn't run on electricity. The stove costs 189,000 yen and has sold 200 units in total.
Also in 2003, Yamamoto Co., based in Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture, launched a general-use model for 15,540 yen, intended for use in homes, schools and offices. The company has sold 400 units so far.
While each of these models has its drawbacks-they weigh over 40 kilograms and take up a lot of space-production is expected to expand well into fiscal 2005.
What is more worrisome is how to secure a safe and sustainable pellet fuel supply for these stoves.
There are two types of pellets on the market: ones made from bark and others from the trunk.
To make the pellets, wood is pulverized, dried, then squeezed out like toothpaste to cool.
According to Kyoto-based nonprofit Pellet Club, domestic pellets measure about 6-8 millimeters in diameter, range from 1-4 centimeters in length and cost about 25 yen to 60 yen per kilogram.
The number of wood-pellet manufacturers has fluctuated over the years.
At the peak, when oil prices soared after the oil crisis in the 1970s, there were around 30 companies producing pellets. Then the numbers dwindled, as oil prices dropped. There were only three facilities in 2000. At the moment, the industry is enjoying a second wind. There were 13 manufacturers in operation in 2003.
Sources estimate that a couple of tons of pellets are consumed every year. But the wood pellets are not of uniform quality.
Safety regulations were called for when a company was found trying to sell pellets made from the debris of demolished buildings.
Such wood, if it is treated with preservatives or insecticides, can give off harmful emissions when burned in a stove. Pellets also have different burn characteristics according to the type and the part of the wood used.
Located in environmentally progressive Iwate Prefecture, Woody Biomass Iwate, an organization that provides information on clean biomass fuel, was asked by the prefectural government to draw up a draft to regulate wood pellets in fiscal 2003.
The draft states that no material from demolished buildings may be used, and regulates the size to a uniform 6-8 mm in diameter, and less than 3 cm in length.
In fall 2004, 12 manufacturers in eastern Japan set up an organization to provide a stable supply and to improve wood-pellet quality. Eager to support such efforts, the Forestry Agency will earmark 35 million yen for group meetings and discussions starting in fiscal 2005.
An agency official said: ``If all manufacturers, including start-ups, stick to the standards, we can sustain uniform quality. We hope to eventually come up with standards comparable to the JAS (Japan Agricultural Standard) law.''
Minoru Kumazaki, dean of Gifu Academy of Forest Science and Culture, is a strong supporter of biomass heating fuel, which does not contribute to global warming, unlike nonrenewable fossil fuels.
Kumazaki explained: ``Mankind has long kept warm by burning wood, which never added to the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Biomass energy generated by burning organic material is good for stemming global warming. In Sweden, 20 percent of all energy is biomass generated, while in Japan it is less than 1 percent.''(IHT/Asahi: February 21,2005)