EPA Wood Stove Regulations: Opportunity or Death Knell?

The Alliance for Green Heat President John Ackerly weights in on the New Source Performance Standards and potential industry impacts.
By John Ackerly | April 30, 2014

Many in the wood stove industry say that the U.S. EPA is about to put them out of business.  The EPA is proposing New Source Performance Standards (set to be phased in over five to eight years) that most existing stoves cannot pass. Can innovation save the industry?  Or will industry have to cope with what it can win in the courts or in Congress? 

This could have been a low-profile rulemaking. One year ago, the EPA and industry seemed headed for agreement on the future emission standards. State regulators and nonprofits caught wind of what appeared to be a cozy relationship between the EPA and industry, and pressured the EPA to rewrite the proposed regulations and make them stricter.

Now, the EPA and industry are bracing for a showdown, and most industry players privately say this is headed for court. But it may be far harder for industry to win anything significant in court than most players realize, as the EPA has been carefully preparing for this outcome.  A key industry talking point is that the regulations will be bad for consumers because they will raise the prices of new stoves, making them unaffordable and leading more people to hang on to their old, uncertified stoves instead of upgrading.

We disagree, and think that by the time the final regulations emerge from the EPA, they will not only be achievable and affordable for industry, but very good for consumers as well.  Here are the key ways that new regulations will help industry and consumers:

1. The efficiency of many types of appliances will go up, enabling households to save even more money by heating with wood or pellets. This will especially be true with hydronic heaters and furnaces where we could see efficiencies double.  Many pellet stoves, including some very popular models, could also see an efficiency jump of 5 to 20 percent, leading to significant fuel savings that will outweigh a small increase in purchase price.

2. Reduced smoke from boilers, furnaces and stoves is great for the health of consumers and their neighbors.  And, reduced smoke from new equipment will give biomass boilers and stoves a badly needed PR boost that will help the entire industry. 

3. Innovation can help reinvigorate an industry that has not had to become much cleaner or more efficient for decades. The last NSPS in 1988 and Washington state’s stricter standard brought exciting periods of innovation that kept American stoves competitive here and abroad, and this NSPS can to do the same.

4.  The proposed regulations endorse the PFI pellet certification standard that will give customers assurances of consistent quality. This will lead to better customer satisfaction with pellet stoves, furnaces and boilers and make emissions profile from lab testing closer to real world performance.

5. Cleaner and more efficient stoves, furnaces and boilers will give policymakers and regulators more confidence in the technology and make it more likely that they will be included in incentive programs at the state and federal level.

We think these benefits are collectively vital for the future of wood and pellet heating in this country. The new proposed regulations may also lead to greater enthusiasm for change-out programs, because regulators will have more confidence in the cleaner technology that can replace the old stoves.  Otherwise, regulators may design more and more change-out programs that focus on wood-to-gas appliances, or just start banning new installs of wood stoves, as some jurisdictions are starting to do.

Some stove and indoor boiler companies welcome the proposed regulations, and are confident their units can or already meet the strictest standards proposed the EPA.  Many more stoves will be able to meet the proposed five- or eight-year standards with small design changes.  

The proposed regulations issued by the EPA still need work. There are areas where we think the proposal could be improved (for example, we disagree with EPA’s proposal to eliminate the consumer information hang-tag, and have some concerns about the new cordwood testing methods proposed), but we are impressed with how quickly the EPA staff is responding to queries and clearing up many of these detailed issues during the public comment period. They are trying to get it right, and we think that they are on the right track.  So next time you hear doom and gloom about the future of wood and pellet heating in America, think about the innovation that can drive this industry forward and keep our stoves among the best and cleanest in the world.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat