The Conspiracy Against Wood Stoves

In recent years, we’ve heard more and more from people who believe the government is trying to regulate wood stoves out of existence.
By John Ackerly | January 03, 2019

In recent years, we’ve heard more and more from people who believe the government is trying to regulate wood stoves out of existence. One surprising angle is that they feel the pellet lobby is partly to blame. 
Much of the grassroots appeal of wood stoves is not having to purchase your heating fuel from a big corporation. And surely, the move toward more pellet devices must be led by corporations trying to make a buck off people who heat with wood. We’ve seen the evils of the big multinationals who control oil and gas. Is that the future of the corporations who want to sell us pellets?

In truth, most of the companies making wood pellets for domestic heating are little more than mom-and-pop companies based in the Northeast and Northwest. Recently, Lignetics has been buying up some of them, becoming the largest pellet producer in the process. But they are hardly a big corporation by anyone’s standards. 

Maybe these pellet fuel companies are just symbols of a change toward more modern heating, which some people don’t like. Pellet heating barely existed 30 years ago, and now these technologies are capturing about 30 percent of stove sales.  For some, pellet stoves represent the antithesis of old wood stove technologies, which can cost under $1,000, require no electricity and virtually no upkeep, and run on fuel that can be obtained for free. Part of the appeal of free fuel is that there is no tax and no oversight, enabling a genuine energy independence. Isn’t that something worth fighting for?

My organization, the Alliance for Green Heat, is sometimes accused of being part of this conspiracy. I also serve on the board of directors of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council. The “pellet lobby” consists mainly of BTEC and the Pellet Fuel institute. BTEC advocates for all biomass fuels—cordwood, chips and pellets—and PFI is an outgrowth of HPBA, which represents cordwood, pellets and gas. 

Both BTEC and PFI are made up of small member companies that, for better or worse, are not aligned with Washington’s most influential and deep-pocketed actors. In fact, they are not even fully accepted as core members of the renewable energy lobby in D.C., which is dominated by wind, solar and other technologies with far more clout and funding. 

The Alliance for Green Heat is leaning more toward pellet heating in recent years. We are also guilty of supporting regulations that will drive up the cost of wood stoves.  At a recent meeting, our board of directors debated the importance of having cheap wood stoves on the market. Most of our board heats with wood and are committed to helping lower-income families avoid fossil heating fuels. During the meeting, I voiced concern that the traditional $650 U.S. EPA-certified wood stove is likely to be bought by families who are the least able to absorb the health impacts of living with too much smoke around the house. What is the true cost of that stove, if health impacts are factored in? There are clear benefits of cleaner, more efficient stoves, but at $1,500 to $2,500, doesn’t the cost lock out lower-income families, some of whom will just keep their even dirtier, uncertified stove?

We would love to see cheap, reliable, and consistently clean stoves on the market.  However, for wood stoves to be consistently clean, that means some level of automation that prevents smoldering. Our Wood Stove Design Challenge promotes R&D in that direction. Kudos to the engineers at SBI, VcV, Wittus, MF Fire and Hwam, who are dedicated to a cleaner, healthier future for wood stoves.

The current policy debate is not about stoves, but about whether wood furnaces and boilers that sell for as low as $3,000 should get a two-year sell-through that would allow them to stay on the market through 2022. We believe it’s critical to prevent these furnaces and boilers from being installed in thousands more neighborhoods. They were part of the outdoor wood boiler boom that left an indelible stain on our entire community and poisoned the air for an untold number of families. Our best shot at being a top tier renewable energy technology is to leave that dirty legacy behind. 

President Trump is spurring the demographic that says it’s none of my business what sort of stove or boiler they are allowed to buy. He is emboldening those who are sure that climate change is a hoax and a conspiracy aimed at restricting their freedoms. It’s only logical, to some, that those of us who push the rapid expansion of pellet heating are part of that conspiracy. 

I don’t mind being part of the “conspiracy” that believes climate change is real and supports renewable energy as part of the solution. As for the wood vs. pellet debate, I’m fine with letting the engineers decide. I’ll support whoever can build the cleanest and most efficient technology that is still relatively affordable. For now, that’s pellet stoves and boilers, but we look forward to the day when many affordable, automated wood stoves are on the market.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat