London Calling—for Cleaner Air

Governments should not incentivize wood stoves in urban and densely populated areas. This is why London is calling in 2017, and it should be a wake-up call everywhere.
By John Ackerly | November 09, 2017

When the Clash released “London Calling” in 1979, very few people in London had wood stoves.  It was during the boom construction years of the nuclear era in the U.S., and right after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. A central theme of the prophetic punk anthem was a haunting forerunner of the effects of climate change: “London is drowning, and I live by the river.”  Indeed, if the River Thames flooded, much of central London would be underwater.

Fast-forward 30 years to 2009, and the U.K. is establishing aggressive incentives to combat climate change, including getting off fossil heating fuels. It went much further than any European country by giving incentives to wood stoves, instead of only restricting them to pellet stoves and boilers, or larger district heating systems. 

By 2015, a quarter million people were buying wood stoves each year, far more than the U.S., even though the U.K. has one-fifth of our population. By 2017, smoke in central London from solid heating fuel had grown to levels not seen since the coal era, which peaked in December 1952, during the Great Smog of London that killed 4,000 people. One credible estimate now puts wood smoke as responsible for one-third of London’s wintertime particulate matter. 

London made the headlines in September 2017, when Mayor Sadiq Khan sought power to possibly ban the use and installation of wood stoves in parts of London. The U.K. stove industry quickly replied that the problem wasn’t wood stoves, but mainly fireplaces. As heating with wood becomes more popular, what are reasonable policies for major urban areas?

During the past 10 years, the North American cities of Montreal, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and New York City have sought to curtail wood burning to improve wintertime air quality. And, scores of smaller towns have fought over outdoor wood boiler installations. Vocal opponents of wood smoke have been rising in number, partially as a result of the installation spree of unregulated outdoor wood boilers from 2000 to 2015, and it appears that there will be many more battles to come over who can install solid fuel heaters in populated areas.

Curtailing the purchase and installation of wood stoves is not easy for jurisdictions, nor should it be.  But at some point, it may be necessary to protect the airshed.  Out of the following, can you pick the two jurisdictions that do not allow the installation of an EPA certified stove? Boulder, Colorado; Libby, Montana; Missoula, Montana; Montreal, Quebec; New York City; Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Francisco; Telluride, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.

We assembled this list to demonstrate that very few jurisdictions restrict the installation of wood stoves, particularly in urban areas. As far as we know, there isn’t a single major metropolitan area that bans the installation of wood stoves. 

If you chose Missoula and Telluride, then congratulations, you guessed correctly. These two western towns that restrict wood stove installations have had high densities of wood stoves and weather inversions that trap wintertime pollutants close to the ground.  Major urban areas in the U.S. tend to deal with wood smoke after the fact by relying on “no burn” or “spare the air” days, instead of preventing excessive wood smoke before it builds up.

New York and San Francisco do not allow the installation of fireplaces in new construction, but allow wood and pellet stoves.

The Alliance for Green Heat is a pro-wood and pellet advocacy group that wants to see more fossil fuel use displaced by biomass heating.  However, wood stoves are not well suited everywhere in the U.S., like pellet stoves are. We applaud the many jurisdictions that distinguish between wood and pellet stoves and allow the installation and use of pellet stoves when wood stove installation and use are curtailed. 

In the U.K., pellet stoves are not very popular, and because the government missed an opportunity to build up that market, they are now paying the price. As London stakeholders work on stove policies, one more immediate fix is to only allow firewood certified under the industry-led Woodsure program to be delivered in London. Woodsure certifies firewood that is well-seasoned, and has much potential to reduce wood smoke.

If the federal tax credit for wood and pellet stoves returns, we would advocate that it include pellet stoves that are 65 percent efficient or higher, and only cover wood stoves that are being installed in rural areas. Governments should not incentivize wood stoves in urban and densely populated areas. This is why London is calling in 2017, and it should be a wake-up call everywhere.

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