Solar Panels, Electric Cars and Yes—Pellet Stoves

We want homes and communities that can be resilient in the face of climate change, power outages, etc., and we need to do it all with renewable energy.
By John Ackerly | September 08, 2017

A decade ago, I barely dreamed about having solar panels on my house and buying an electric car. But technology and energy changed so fast, and last year we put a 5.4-kW solar PV system on our rooftop. This not only made economic sense, it also felt good. And because we produce more electricity than our home uses, we are about to buy a plug-in hybrid vehicle to use our own renewable electricity for our daily driving.

How are wood and pellet heating supposed to compete in this day and age, where everything is going electric? Heating with wood or pellets makes even more economic sense for most people, and makes many of us feel plenty good, too.  But my neighbors are much more interested in talking about solar and electric cars because they’re new and in the news. The innovation that made wood and pellet stoves work is so 1980s.  Not much has changed since then, right?

Sort of. Wood and pellet stoves and boilers are getting cleaner and more efficient. They are also becoming more automated and wi-fi connected. In many ways, pellet stoves and boilers fit into our current energy culture better than ever.  They should be a core part of the distributed renewable energy movement, and a complement to renewable electricity.

The electric car revolution is shaping up to put huge demands on our grids, while more and more homes are going all-electric as heat pump efficiencies rise. But it still makes little sense to use electricity for whole house heating in the coldest parts of the country when we have growing demands for electricity, and are trying to increase the percentage of renewables on grids.

If you make your own electricity, installing enough solar panels to power all your household appliances, heating, and car is a tall order. Prioritizing electricity for household needs and electric cars while leaving heat to modern pellet or wood systems still makes sense. If our initiative to promote innovation in wood and pellet stoves works, homes could even start getting 50 to 100 watts of electricity from their stoves during winter. This would help make up for the huge reduction in electricity generated from solar panels during the winter when the sun is low, and dips under the skyline early.

For urban and suburban two-car families, having one plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle is now a no-brainer. They get you where you need to go, are far cheaper to drive and maintain, and not that much more expensive than new, gasoline-powered cars. Pellet stoves and boilers are also well-suited for urban and suburban areas. Suburban families like ours can run on nearly 100 percent renewable energy with a pellet stove, solar PV system and a plug-in hybrid. This assumes you have reduced your energy usage with a rigorous home energy audit and some energy retrofitting first.

If we look to Europe as an example of trends that may take root here someday, we see countries starting to announce that they will only allow the sale of electric cars starting in 2035 or 2040.  We see an explosion of pellet stove sales in Italy, and pellet boilers in Austria and elsewhere. One futuristic appliance that is already on the market combines solar PV with a pellet boiler, both of which can make electricity. Its computer can decide during the night, or on cloudy days, if it is cheaper to make electricity with pellets or buy it from the grid to charge your car. 

Back 10 years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever have solar panels that powered my home, or the car in my driveway. Today, I can’t even imagine owning a pellet stove or boiler that makes heat and electricity based on time-of-day pricing and weather patterns. And, once you include home batteries like the Tesla Powerwall, the options get even more interesting, and include local energy sharing.

These are all elements of one of the most popular buzzwords of the day: resilience. We want homes and communities that can be resilient in the face of climate change, power outages, etc., and we need to do it all with renewable energy. That is why continual innovation in our community is essential.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat