Wood Stoves and Washington Lobbyists

Influenced by states and groups that want to deploy more of the cleanest and most efficient appliances, the EPA is slowly beginning to treat the wood stove sector not just as an emitter of particulates, but also as a way to reduce fossil fuels.
By John Ackerly | January 26, 2016

When the U.S. EPA first regulated wood stoves in the late 1980s, the industry was more of a partner in developing the standards. When the EPA began updating those standards around 2010, many in the industry expected to be treated as partners again. After all, the depth of industry’s expertise and experience far exceeded that of the small, underfunded team of EPA employees.

The key EPA employee, Gil Wood, was a veteran of the 1988 regulations. All the key industry players were on a first-name basis with him, and had developed with him a certain level of trust. In the summer of 2012, the EPA appeared to be putting final touches on regulations that the industry supported and had worked hard on. 

All that changed in November 2012, when the EPA released a new draft containing far stricter emission standards. The industry was stunned, and felt betrayed. What had gone wrong? Had it become too self-assured?

That month, we were part of the meeting at which the EPA unveiled the stricter regulations. It was plain to us that the EPA had misjudged the demand by states and air quality agencies for stricter regulations. Now, it was up to Wood to be the main messenger of the far stricter draft rules.

One thing that had changed was a dramatic resurgence in wood stove use that began during the great recession of 2008-‘09. States and air quality agencies were still digesting the pollution impacts as the EPA developed its first draft of regulations.  Another trend was that both wood and pellet stoves were becoming cleaner, and it was clear that a sizable portion of new stoves could meet the stricter standards that the EPA was proposing.

From the start, this regulatory battle had little to do with the potential of wood and pellets as a significant renewable energy source. Rather, the EPA was treating wood and pellet stoves and boilers simply as a source of pollution that needed to be regulated. Years ago, the wood and pellet contingent merged with the patio industry and were now just as committed to gas stoves and fireplaces. Wood and pellet stoves and boilers were almost an orphaned type of renewable technology, with no clear advocates in the private sector or government.

Things began to change, as many of the states that demanded stricter emissions regulations also began incentivizing modern, cleaner wood and pellet boilers from Europe. Several northeastern states began a push to promote the cleanest appliances, which the EPA and DOE had not done. Around the same time, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council broke away from the Pellet Fuels Institute to champion policies that would help wood and pellet heating be viewed as a modern renewable energy technology. BTEC emerged as the leading voice in Washington for biomass as a renewable heating fuel. My organization, the Alliance For Green Heat, focuses on wood and pellets as a residential renewable fuel that has the potential to be very clean and efficient.

The final regulations released by the EPA in 2015 were not as tough as the ones it floated in 2012, but they were far tougher than what industry thought they were getting.

We believe these tougher standards are key for stoves and boilers to be more accepted as mainstream renewable energy appliances.  Solar, wind and other technologies are growing quickly, and biomass technology needs to show that it is clean enough to play a larger role in the renewable energy mix. Most in the stove and boiler industry acknowledge that the 1988 regulations saved the industry, because states were developing their own patchwork of regulations and the wood smoke problem was severe. For better or worse, regulations provide a necessary floor for this industry (and many others) and help to create a level playing field that helps the sector become cleaner and more efficient.

Jan. 1 was a historic day for residential wood heating in America, as it marked the day that unregulated stoves and boilers went off the market. Finally, we have entered an era where all new equipment is required to meet at least basic emission regulations. Three very conservative states—Missouri, Michigan and Virginia—oppose even basic emission regulations for stoves and boilers, but virtually the entire stove industry accepts the need for some regulations. 

Even the EPA itself is changing. It is now beginning to issue voluntary hangtags, which are akin to a green label for woodstoves. Influenced by states and groups like ours that want to deploy more of the cleanest and most efficient appliances, the EPA is slowly beginning to treat the sector not just as an emitter of particulates, but also as a way to reduce fossil fuels.  It’s a small but important step and part of the legacy that Gil Wood left when he retired last spring.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance For Green Heat