NORA President Huber Chats with ICM

[ezcol_1half]In February, 2014, the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) was re-authorized by Congress to operate through February 2019. NORA’s mission is and was to improve the American consumer’s experience with oil-fired heating and hot water. NORA’s activities fall under four general categories: [/ezcol_1half]

[ezcol_1half_end]Research & Demonstration, Industry Education, Energy Efficiency and Consumer Education. John Huber, NORA President, sat down with Indoor Comfort Marketing’s Greg Dool to discuss NORA’s direction for the next five years.[/ezcol_1half_end]

[ezcol_1half]GD: Now that NORA is back up and running, what principal areas of research do you plan to focus on?
JH: The biggest function of our research going forward will be on the fuels—specifically Bioheat® (biodiesel blended with heating oil and perhaps additional sources in the future)—and then also looking at how to make sure the fuel that we use functions properly in the equipment.

GD: Does NORA have any partners in that process?
JH: We fully expect to work very closely with the National Biodiesel Board through this effort and also with the Department of Energy and the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) on some of the projects.

GD: There has been resistance to embrace blending biodiesel with heating oil by some in the industry. Are biodiesel blends the future of oil heat? Is there any place for non bio-based fuels down the road?
JH: It really depends on how far into the future you’re looking. If you’re looking at tomorrow being 100% biofuel or ultra-low sulfur, then obviously that won’t be the case. There still needs to be a lot of developmental work done on the biofuels to make sure that they are completely ready for use in all applications. I think when you hear dealers express concern, that’s what they are saying. When we put our timeline out ten, fifteen, twenty years—which is really where NORA is trying to think for the industry—we have to be a biofuel-ready industry that can be responsive to any concerns that our customers or public policy makers have with it.

GD: What research is currently being undertaken regarding the compatibility of biodiesel in existing equipment?
JH: We have equipment in the field that’s thirty, forty, fifty years old. Whether it’s tanks, burners, furnaces or boilers, many of those will last decades. As we transition into biofuel, we have to make sure that any biofuel we use is compatible with that equipment, or that we have a quick, easy and cheap way to transition that equipment to a biofuel-ready state. NORA is doing extensive testing to make sure that any biodiesel that will be used in home heating equipment is ready for use in existing homes.

GD: What has to be done to ensure that equipment is ready?
JH: For example, today we have a biodiesel product that we have found to be completely usable in all homes at a 5% biodiesel blend. Many retail heating oil dealers are using it at much higher levels, at 20, 50 or 100%. As we go down those paths of higher concentrations or slightly different biofuels, we have to be thinking about questions such as performance. Will it react well with our tanks? Will there be any issues with long-term storage? Will issues develop with materials in the existing systems? Will it have to be set up differently by the technician? Before any biofuel-based heating fuel is ready for the market, we have to ensure that we understand all of those issues so that we are not disrupting the customer at all.

GD: Will NORA’s outreach efforts to consumers relate to biodiesel?
JH: NORA’s marketing and consumer outreach efforts will definitely be focused on Bioheat® fuel and biodiesel. That is part of our legislative charter: to provide consumer education and information about biodiesel. As the industry is transitioning to that fuel, making sure that the customer understands that we are transitioning to a renewable product is vital for the future of the industry and our consumers’ perceptions of our industry.

GD: Is there any timeline for moving to blends with higher amounts of bio-based content?
JH: This is a process that’s being done by many independent actors, whether it’s wholesalers or retailers. I think the industry is generally at about a 5% biodiesel blend, based on what’s mandated and some of the programs being run by the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.] We have thought about trying to get to 20% by 2020, if possible, and then seeing what the additional hurdles might be from there.

GD: Speaking to consumer education, do you see the transition to biodiesel and the opportunity to change the industry’s public perception as a potential tool that retail heating oil dealers can use to retain customers and prevent them from switching to another fuel for home heating?
JH: Whenever you talk about trying to reach out to consumers, you talk about giving them some new information to make their decisions on. The biofuel/biodiesel concept is really something new. It’s the first real change in the industry in decades. When you couple that with the ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD), we can say that we have a much better fuel than we used to have.[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]Before we can talk about anything else, we have to catch the consumer’s attention. I think Bioheat® is the best way of doing that. Once we have them listening to the fact that we are a cleaner, renewable product, then we can continue to emphasize some of the core strengths that we have always brought to the consumer, whether that’s great service at the local level, quality service or anything else. Until you can get their attention, nothing else matters.particularly vulnerable. Until we have a clean, renewable fuel, we, as an industry, really can’t be generating electricity without running afoul of environmental regulations. Talking about increasing the share of power production, whether that be electricity at the home-based level or for a commercial facility, regulatory authorities will look at it very negatively if we are actually growing the carbon footprint of the fuel when that can be done in a more renewable way. Being able to lessen the global carbon footprint by using biodiesel to generate electricity is a major step forward for us.
Similarly, reducing emissions will lessen resistance against developing equipment that can provide air conditioning and heating simultaneously. Quite simply, if you’re not in a position to lower carbon intensity, you’re going to be out of the game. We need to be solving that problem, not making it worse.

GD: Is it safe to say that research is a higher priority in this latest incarnation of NORA?
JH: The investment in research and development is much higher in the new NORA. Anyone who pays attention to what’s going on right now in our economy realizes how much business development is based on technological innovation. Looking at our industry, we have clearly underinvested in that. To that end, NORA is working to set up a central lab, where we would have a lab director responsible for working with the industry and its manufacturers to develop new equipment and new technology.

GD: How exactly do you plan to conduct all of this research?
JH: We will continue to work at the lab itself. One of the key aspects of our product, however, is getting equipment out into the field. We don’t want any equipment developed that doesn’t move off the lab shelf. To do that, we anticipate that we will continue to work with manufacturers in the industry to help them develop the next generation of equipment. We are releasing a project opportunity notice (PON) and inviting manufacturers and others to help us solve problems. In the process of helping us solve problems, hopefully they will also develop a new generation of equipment that they can market to retailers.

GD: What plans do you have for education within the industry?
JH: One of the things we are doing is making sure heating oil technicians progress and understand new technologies that are in the market or coming to the market. We are revitalizing our Gold technician’s certification program. Currently, our main program is our Silver technician’s certification, which generally means someone who has completed advanced training and has been working in the industry for a minimum of five years. As we enter the new era, we need to make sure that Silver-certified technician keeps up with all of the new technology. To achieve this, we are coming up with a series of six “masters” courses: venting, hydronics, energy efficiency, electronic controls, steam and air movement. Completion of the energy efficiency course—and three of the other five—will earn Gold certification. We hope to have that implemented in Spring 2015.

GD: If I am a trainer, how do I go about getting NORA certification for my courses?
JH: We are working with our industry partners to make sure that the classes that are suitable for oil heat professionals are listed on our website and that when the educator provides that training, the continuing education units (CEUs) are credited to that individual’s account. What we want for our NORA website is to have a complete portal for the industry that everyone uses, whether it’s individual technicians, manufacturers who do training or associations. When anyone wants to learn anything about oil heat, we want them to be able to come to our website.

GD: Finally, what are NORA’s biggest challenges moving forward?
JH: I think, realistically, there are two major challenges to the industry, and they have been present for many years. One is the overall negative perception of oil, which is then reflected against heating oil. The second is the cost structure of our industry. Heating oil prices have been higher than what the industry would like for many years. We hope the current trend of prices falling that we have observed in recent weeks continues. When prices are high, it puts a lot of stress on the relationship between company and consumer. Making sure our prices come down is critical to the future of the industry.  End.[/ezcol_1half_end]