EPA’s NSPS: Next Steps for Pellet Producers

U.S. EPA's New Source Performance Standards for new residential wood heaters is now in effect, although Wiberg says there are ambiguities. He shares what the Pellet Fuels Institute and others know about the NSPS rule.
By Chris Wiberg | July 16, 2015

On May 15, the U.S. EPA’s New Source Performance Standards for new residential wood heaters went into effect. This is just over four years after the pellet fuels industry was put on notice (March 2011) that the 1988 NSPS would be updated to include pellet-burning appliances. Though the regulation itself is no surprise, we have all long anticipated what the regulation might say, and have tried to prepare ourselves for the requirements that would be published. In many cases, we anticipated correctly, but we also had several surprises when reading the final wording of the rule. There were also ambiguities. In several instances, EPA provided language indicating regulatory requirements, but did not provide clear enough language for the industry to know how to comply. Efforts are currently underway by the Pellet Fuels Institute and others to work with EPA to clarify several points, but it is uncertain how long this process will take. Until then, we are all relegated to implement the requirements of the NSPS rule to the best of our understanding, so here is what we know.

The rule regulates emissions of new residential wood pellet-burning appliances of all types. This includes pellet stoves, fireplace inserts and central heating systems. It is important to note that this regulation is for all “new” appliances that are used for residential heating and does not apply to appliances manufactured prior to May 15, or to these same appliances used in nonresidential applications such as garages, commercial buildings, greenhouses and chicken barns. Noncompliant appliances manufactured prior to May 15 can still be sold until the end of the year to clear old inventory, but after May 15 all newly manufactured appliances must comply with the NSPS requirements. 

EPA’s NSPS rule specifies that all new residential wood heaters must be tested to verify that emissions are below the limits specified in the NSPS and that emissions testing must be conducted using the fuel that will be authorized for use within the appliance. EPA has stipulated that the fuel approved for use will consist of pellet fuel produced under a licensing agreement with an approved third-party organization. There are three approved programs: the PFI Standards Program, ENplus and CANplus. Once testing is complete, EPA requires that, in the owner’s manual, the appliance manufacturer specify which fuels are approved for use, and state that the appliance warranty will be void if the user of the appliance burns fuel other than the fuel specified in the manual.

In addition to the requirement for fuel to be produced under a licensing agreement with an approved third-party organization, EPA has also set minimum requirements for pellet fuel including limits for ash, fines, trace metals and other parameters. This has become a significant issue of debate, because EPA does not have statutory authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate pellet fuel, and including specific fuel requirements within the NSPS appears to be regulation of the fuel itself. In some instances, the fuel requirements provided appear reasonable. In other cases, however, the limits are in conflict with the grade requirements specified by the PFI, ENplus and CANplus programs. It is also a concern that once specified in the NSPS, these fuel requirements cannot be changed without additional rulemaking, which could restrict future innovation.  An example would be that, in the future, innovative appliance manufacturers could find ways to utilize higher-ash materials and still meet the required NSPS emission limits, but not if the NSPS specifies that pellet fuel cannot contain more than 2 percent ash.

The PFI has challenged EPA’s authority to set minimum requirements for pellet fuel by filing a petition for review in the District of Columbia Circuit Court. Filing the petition was a necessary step to assure that the pellet fuels industry has a voice in these matters, and that EPA does not overstep its authority. Concurrently, PFI will continue to seek to work constructively with EPA to clarify ambiguous language so that pellet fuel producers can better understand what is required under the NSPS. 

While it is uncertain as to how long it will take to iron out all of the issues with EPA’s NSPS, the rule as currently written is now in effect, and all entities affected must comply. For this reason, it is essential that pellet fuel producers continue to implement the approved programs (PFI Standards Program, ENplus or CANplus) so that approved fuel will be available this next heating season for consumers who purchase new appliances. 

Author: Chris Wiberg
Manager, Biomass Energy Laboratory
218-428-3583
cwiberg@tpinspection.com