Oregon lawmakers consider incentives to replace old wood stoves

By Katie Fletcher | December 23, 2014

The Oregon Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources recently introduced draft legislation that would direct the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a study and develop recommendations for legislation that would encourage homeowners to replace old wood stoves with cleaner, new pellet or wood burning stoves. “I’ve learned from DEQ that residential wood burning is really a significant source of air pollution in the state,” said Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, chairman of the senate committee. “It’s not the only source of the problem, but it is a really major source in those areas.”

The areas Dembrow is referring to are parts of Oregon that are already in violation of state air quality standards or are at risk of falling into that category. Dembrow said, these areas relative to the rest of the state are usually lower income; areas where rural people may have difficulty converting to a new certified wood stove or pellet burning stove. Dembrow estimates the average cost of a certified wood or pellet heating systems can cost $5,000 to $6,000. “I would say that is really what is holding people back, and so if we can figure out a way to make it affordable for them either by using tax credits, outright support for the purchases, or perhaps some sort of state loan we could then pay back overtime—and there are probably pluses and minuses to all of that—then that’s what we are hoping,” Dembrow said.

Some homeowners were able to change out their heating systems in the past using stimulus money through the federal government’s rural development American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program. “It was a very successful program as I understand it, but it only touched a certain number of people and those dollars are long gone,” Dembrow said.

There are still many homeowners in the state who need to make replacements. The DEQ estimates there are currently over 150,000 older wood stoves needing replacement in Oregon. As of 2009 Oregon law requires homeowners to remove an uncertified woodstove or fireplace insert if selling their home and report to DEQ that the stove or insert was decommissioned. The DEQ’s Heat Smart Program requires any new heating system installed by the home buyer or seller to have a certification sticker from either Oregon DEQ or EPA. However, even with this law, “the problem is people who don’t want to move, who want to stay in their home, who want to keep burning wood,” Dembrow said. “We want to try to help them to do that.”

Although Dembrow said the committee doesn’t have any answers at this point as to what sort of financing arrangements or new sources of dedicated funding can be made available, they are taking the first step. “That’s what this legislation does, we are directing our DEQ to start a process that would give us different options that we could pursue,” Dembrow said. “I personally am also interested in ways in which this could perhaps help stimulate our own biomass industry here in Oregon.”

Oregon has a growing wood pellet industry, as well as various programs that encourage biomass use, such as the Fuels for Schools program. “It focuses on rural schools located in areas where there is biomass harvesting happening,” Dembrow said.

As part of the draft legislation it asks the department to consult with other state agencies when developing its recommendation. Dembrow said the Department of Forestry, Department of Economic Development and the Oregon Health Authority may be a few. The DEQ also contains a department of public health and environmental health. According to the DEQ, particulate matter in woodstove smoke can be easily inhaled and reach the deepest part of the lungs; it is known to cause or contribute to respiratory disease, asthma attacks, heart problems and premature death.

“I think most people don’t actually realize what a big problem this is,” Dembrow said. “This will be kind of a conscious activity as something that will, I think, stimulate creative thinking on how we improve the public health and at the same time potentially strengthen rural communities through this industry.”

According to Dembrow, they are sworn in for the new session Jan. 12, at which time all the bills are first read into the record. After a few weeks of adjournment the actual session begins Feb. 2, and the committees will start hearing bills.