Trump, Obama and Wood Stoves

Even though President Trump is a climate change skeptic and put the head of Exxon in charge of our state department, could he still do something good for our modest slice of the residential renewable energy movement?
By John Ackerly | February 21, 2017

Many of us in the wood and pellet heating movement are doing a lot of soul searching these days. Not only do we have a president who questions the science behind climate change, we also have to deal with the effects of a warming world that is gradually reducing demand for the renewable energy technology we support.

Even though Trump is a climate change skeptic and put the head of Exxon in charge of our state department, could he still do something good for our modest slice of the residential renewable energy movement?

Obama was a champion of renewable energy, but his administration did not deliver that much for our sector. He did give us a vision for an America that would steadily increase the amount of renewable energy on our grid, and in our cars. Renewable heat policy was sure to follow. 

Under Obama, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the USDA, was a vocal proponent of rural Americans who benefit from wood and pellet heating. Hopefully, their leadership in this area will continue. Under Obama, the U.S. EPA did a good job updating stove and boiler emission standards, which is absolutely necessary for wood and pellet heating systems. But there was no real leadership or vision at the level for promoting the deployment of the most advanced equipment, as there is in Europe.

We could go backward under Trump if Congress were to abolish the wood stove and boilers emission regulations, which some of the extreme right-wing members want to do.  They have already introduced legislation to that end. The wood and boiler industry unanimously opposes doing away with these regulations, since reasonable and clear federal rules are good for industry, compared to a patchwork of state and local rules.

We could stay the same course with little federal support or intervention, which is probably the most likely scenario. Wood stoves would continue to outsell pellet stoves by three to one, and the legacy of millions of old, polluting stoves would stay put, heating more homes than their cleaner EPA-certified cousins.

Maybe the Republican Congress and even the White House could advance this sector more than the last Congress or the Obama administration. President Trump’s base is far more rural than Obama’s, and much of it is low- to middle-income. These are also families who struggle to pay heating bills, and are part of a demographic that buys wood and pellet stoves. 

A first step for Congress would be to pass the BTU Act, which would finally treat high-efficiency biomass heating just as other renewables are treated. This means tax credits for institutions and households that are investing in a domestic energy pathway that supports rural America. 

A second step is a program that helps rural Americans upgrade old wood stoves to cleaner, more efficient options such as heat pumps, pellet stoves or certified wood stoves. There are about 12 million Americans with wood stoves, and only about half a million with solar panels. Both have about the same capacity to reduce fossil fuel use, but most of those 12 million stoves are not as clean or efficient as they should be. As a country, we still have the opportunity to harness the potential of those 12 million households by upgrading those appliances.

This Congress can help support rural economies and American jobs by supporting modern biomass heating. Currently, we export millions of tons of wood pellets to Europe for low-efficiency electricity generation, when we should be transforming that production for high-efficiency heat and combined heat and power for use here at home. 

I am still hopeful that Congress can focus on rural America in a way that helps millions of households affordably heat their homes with a domestic fuel.  Congress is our best hope.  As for our new president, I didn’t vote for him, but I’m not writing him off, either.  

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat
[email protected]