Ideology and Science in Residential Wood Heating

Ideology may again be one of the greatest threats to residential wood heating, and all renewables. If the Trump administration undermines renewable energy policies, there may be less momentum to make our stoves even cleaner and more efficient.
By John Ackerly | April 11, 2017

It’s tempting to think that the best technological innovations gradually spread across the globe, as evidence of the improvement spreads.

In the case of residential wood and pellet heating, however, some innovation spreads, and some is spurned. One of America’s greatest claims to fame in this sector is the invention of the pellet stove in Washington State in the 1970s and ‘80s. The pellet stove is an example of a technology that was readily adopted by European countries that have now overtaken us in R&D, production and deployment. The U.S. now imports most of its pellet boilers from Europe, as our innovation and production has lagged.

In the case of pellet stoves and boilers, the more rapid uptake in Europe has a pretty simple explanation: the higher cost of fossil fuels makes renewable technology far more affordable, even without government subsidies. A million Americans heat their homes with pellet stoves, fewer than the number of homes in Italy. But is this just because our fossil fuel prices are low? Or does ideology also play a role?

Let’s look at another example. If you asked the average American who the greatest inventor of stove technology in the U.S. was, they would likely say Ben Franklin, who came out with the Franklin stove in the 1770s.  This shows the power of myth, which has little basis in reality. Franklin’s “innovation” didn’t spread to Europe, because virtually the entire continent had surpassed that level of heating technology decades earlier.

Franklin did not even invent a stove. He improved the fireplace, and later innovators added a door to his design, which significantly increased efficiency and turned it into a stove. So why does he get so much credit? Much can be explained by the fact that ideology can often trump science. Franklin knew that far higher efficiencies could be achieved by adding a door to his fireplace, but he came from an Anglican tradition that valued seeing the flames, and he believed that an open flame fire was good for health. He vigorously opposed the Germanic tradition of closing the firebox, even though closed fireboxes used far less wood, and were badly needed by lower-income families who not afford 20 to 30 cords of wood each winter like he could.

Ben Franklin’s America was one full of immigrants who often banded together to promote their own cultural beliefs, and the technological knowledge that they brought from their homelands. In many cases, America was the place where innovation could flourish, freed from the stifling ancient traditions of Europe. To this day, one reason high-efficiency designs have not caught on in America is that we have such abundant wood supplies. But it’s also because some technology does not get adopted, even when it makes all the sense in the world.

In Europe, high-efficiency and low-emission masonry and tile stoves were becoming widespread in the 1800s. Why didn’t the culture of masonry stoves cross the pond to the U.S.?  Was it just the abundance of wood in the New World compared to Europe? One expert believes that the highly skilled masons who made these stoves were in such demand in Europe that virtually none immigrated to the U.S. To this day, masonry stoves occupy a small niche among energy experts and green builders. Their demand is small enough that the U.S. EPA couldn’t justify the resources to establish a certification program, hindering their sale in some states. The Masonry Heater Association has been begging to be regulated, and is finally in the process.

Today, mostly as a result of EPA regulations, many American wood stoves are some of the most efficient and cleanest in the world. These regulations require emission control systems that are not as strictly required in most other countries. But while our stove industry continues to improve stove technology, some companies exploit loopholes and unregulated areas, giving rise to a generation of terribly polluting outdoor wood boilers and exempt, unregulated wood stoves.

Ideology may again be one of the greatest threats to residential wood heating, and all renewables. If the Trump administration undermines renewable energy policies, there may be less momentum to make our stoves even cleaner and more efficient. Other countries are investing in the future, in cleaner and more efficient renewable technology, including high-efficiency stoves and boilers. If the Trump administration bets on the past—coal and other fossil fuels—our country will be left behind.

States can pick up some of the slack, but effective national emission regulations are good for industry, consumers and the environment. Many states are committed to advancing pellet stove and boiler technology, particularly the Northeast. But will that be enough to help the U.S. pellet stove and boiler community build the infrastructure necessary for this technology to take off?

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat