OPINION: A $500 million gamble for the stove industry

By John Ackerly | August 22, 2018

Several Senators are working on language that proposes half a billion dollars to a fund for a national change-out program. A draft of this language was conveyed to industry and a few others recently, but according to Republican majority members, industry can’t support it.

The problem was that the draft contained a tough pill for industry to swallow: accepting the 2015 stove regulations promulgated under the Obama administration. This would mean that HPBA may have to drop its lawsuit and regulatory relief goals. But the draft bill also provided a one-year, retailer sell-through provision for stove and boilers from May 15, 2020 to May 15, 2021. 

Industry is gambling that it can get more value from revisions to the NSPS than a one-year sell-through period and the possibility of a half billion-dollar wood stove change-out fund. Manufacturers know that a half billion-dollar fund is far from certain. It would have to go through the full Senate and also through the House. And any legislation that does not make it through both chambers and signed by Trump this year would have to begin the process over next year.

The momentum and support for such a massive pot of money for stove change-outs could easily slip away. The power behind this concept is that there is something for everyone, but it will take a broad coalition of stakeholders to make it happen. One purpose of this column is to encourage more public discourse on the possibilities, options and potential benefits of this legislation.

Some background is in order here. A year or more sell-through period for retailers is not just good for retailers who would otherwise be saddled with unsellable inventory. It would also allow manufacturers to continue selling wood and pellet stoves that emit up to 4.5 grams per hour, as well as boilers that emit even more. If retailers aren’t given the sell-through, some of the laggard manufacturers who did not prepare for the 2020 deadline may have precious little product to sell over the next several years.

But the gamble is more complicated than most of us realize. Some states have already adopted the 2020 NSPS. Thus, as of May 15, 2020, they will start to enforce stricter standards for boilers and the 2- or 2.5- grams-per-hour limit for stoves. Change-out and incentive programs might also stick to the May 15, 2020 deadline.

The legislative push for a three-year delay to the 2020 deadline is a real long-shot. The Senate bill should have the votes to get out of committee, but unlike the House, the Democrats can put a hold on it. This would require the Republicans to get 60 votes, which is a very tall order. And the House didn’t do industry any favors by merging relief for wood heater manufacturers with relief for high-emitting brick and tile manufacturing.

 This likely puts the onus for relief on the Trump Administration and sets up what is likely to be a very controversial and adversarial process between industry and air agencies, states, and the environmental community. This is not where the wood heating community should position itself. And it is especially not worth forgoing half a billion for change-outs.

Public health ramifications are also rarely included in the debate. I haven’t yet heard anyone in the stove or boiler community interested in calculating the additional PM that will result from three more years of selling higher emitting stoves and boilers. As we all know, the great benefit—and curse—of wood stoves is that they last a long time, and will be impacting airsheds for 20 to 30 years to come.  Moving to cleaner stoves in 2020 offers cleaner air for tens of thousands of families. 

 The 1988 NSPS prompted a huge step forward for wood stove technology.  Within a matter of years, engineers invented a range of new technologies, and soon, all companies adopted them. The 2015 is prompting another major step forward, and no one quite yet knows who will invent what, and how significant these improved combustion technologies will be. 

 The idea of building Congressional support for a national wood stove change-out fund has been bouncing around for more than a decade. There is widespread agreement on the need for a massive infusion of resources to get older wood stoves out of circulation and cleaner alternatives into circulation. The only source for that kind of money is the federal government.

 A national wood stove change-out fund modeled on the federal diesel change out program could replace more than 70,000 stoves per year, assuming the program received $75 million a year in federal funds, some matching state funds, and had an average change-out rebate of $1,000.  Over six years, this would be over 400,000 old stoves removed and replaced by cleaner ones. This is a historic moment for the American stove community, and deserves a far more public and rigorous debate.