American Wood Stoves: Delay and Deregulate, or Innovate for the Future?

The U.S. EPA recently announced that it was going to provide some relief to the wood stove industry by reopening and modifying the Obama-era regulations that would have set stricter emission limits on stoves and boilers in 2020.
By John Ackerly | July 11, 2018

The U.S. EPA recently announced that it was going to provide some relief to the wood stove industry by reopening and modifying the Obama-era regulations that would have set stricter emission limits on stoves and boilers in 2020. 

Led by the Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association, the domestic stove and boiler industry aggressively lobbied both Congress and the administration for a three-year delay.  The House of Representatives agreed, but the Senate did not act on it. Now, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA has indicated that it is open to approving that delay, and also receptive to a wider rewrite of parts of the rule.

Get ready. Each business will try to get as much as it can in the short term, but too much regulatory relief can easily backfire. Wood stoves have been stuck in the backwaters of the renewable energy movement, and getting relief from this EPA is likely to help it stay there. Do we want wood stoves to be seen as a mini smoke stack industry, or part of the forward-looking renewable energy community? 
The strategy of the industry appears mostly to maintain the status quo, which sells maybe 200,000 wood and pellet stoves a year, and that number is likely to hold steady or decline.

One reason the EPA initially cracked down on the stove and boiler industry was that outdoor wood boilers got out of control, and if that downward trend continues, the reputation of all wood and pellet appliances will suffer.

The sector that has the most to gain from the Obama-era regulations is the pellet stove and pellet boiler sector.  If leaders in that community do not stand up and publicly articulate a cleaner vision for biomass heating, they will lose a major opportunity. 

Pellet heating can be remarkably clean, and even paired with solar PV to make most homes virtually carbon neutral. National and state policymakers are looking more closely at pellets, as they should. The most effective advocates of residential pellet policy are Northeastern groups and companies importing European boilers. There is very little effective advocacy for domestic-made pellet stoves and boilers. That void calls out for more unity among pellet fuel and pellet appliance producers. States need to focus more on pellet stoves, and not just pellet boilers.

Allying with Pruitt’s EPA is the wrong direction. This sends the wrong message to state and federal officials who are trying to craft incentive and rebate programs for renewable technologies. A handful of companies publicly support stricter regulations taking effect in 2020, as they were set to before Obama left office. These companies are usually smaller, more nimble, and more forward-looking.

Despite their small size, they have focused on R&D, and made the investments to comply with the new emissions standards, while laggard companies waited to be rescued by Congress or Pruitt. Ironically, the bigger the stove company or conglomerate, the more likely it appears to be ready to fight against stricter regulations.

Another opportunity for the industry to show that it is willing be a responsible player in the energy efficiency community is to publicly support an IRS tax credit policy that only rewards the most efficient stove models. It is time to stop pretending that 90 percent of stoves are eligible for a tax credit meant for stoves that are over 75 percent efficient. Stricter rules are often the result of an industry that failed to regulate itself. This is a case in point.

The 25C IRS provision for efficient appliances that started at $1,500, dropped to $300, and is now gone altogether, could return at $400 or $500. But stoves risk being left out if the stove industry can’t agree to meaningful eligibility criteria. And the only way to use meaningful efficiency numbers is to use the actual tested efficiencies posted on the list of EPA certified stoves. 

If the EPA agrees to delay the stove regulations, the industry could effectively lose three years toward becoming part of the renewable energy revolution. A desire for short-term profits by the laggards in the industry will undermine the long-term success of the cleaner industry members that are prepared for the 2020 deadline.

When the EPA opens these regulations for comment, we call on individual companies to show leadership on moving quickly toward a cleaner future. Smart corporate leaders welcome reasonable regulation, as it provides a level playing field and avoids backlash by states. And smart industry associations find ways not to sink to the lowest common denominator among their members. We need leadership to show that biomass heating is ready to move, without delay, to a cleaner, renewable technology future.   

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