The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University was recently awarded more than $97,000 in grant funding through the USDA Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program. The funding is for the two-year project, "Developing the Biomass Residential Heating Market for U.S. Farmers and Industry: Identifying the 'Right' Consumers for Biomass Products."
According to the IIRA, the project is intended to help expand the U.S. home biomass heating market, which will also increase environmental sustainability and create opportunities for development of a green economy. Adee Athiyaman, professor of marketing and principal investigator of the new project at the IIRA, says IIRA researchers will conduct a national survey to determine consumers' motivations for purchasing biomass residential heating fuels and appliances.
"The survey will make it possible to segment customers according to differing needs and incentives," he explains. "Our goal is to determine to what extent homeowner decisions to adopt biomass technology are based on fuel cost and efficiencies relative to existing fossil fuel usage and to what extent environmental benefits of the product are valued."
Fred Iutzi, manager of IIRA's Value-Added Sustainable Development Center, notes federal energy statistics show a slow but steady rise in consumer interest in biomass heating, at the same time that falling heating fuel prices are making headlines.
"That should be no surprise. By the time natural gas or propane actually arrives at your home, even at current prices, you've just bought some of the most expensive energy in the entire economy. This makes residential space heating a natural early niche for biomass energy," Iutzi explains. "To help the biomass sector grow as rapidly as the market will support, we want to give furnace manufacturers and dealers tools to quickly identify the customers most interested in biomass heating products. The same goes for farmers who want to direct market biomass fuels."
Athiyaman says beyond targeting sales efforts, the research will help manufacturers identify the "right consumers" to use in the product development process.
"People who demonstrate outgoing characteristics typically tend to improve product concepts, making the products more appealing and useful to other consumers. Market segmentation studies are highly valued by industry because they provide useful marketing guidance on a range of topics," he notes.
The project is funded by a USDA initiative to stimulate agriculturally based community economic development and enable states to research new opportunities in marketing, transportation and distribution of U.S. agricultural products.