A $5 Million X-Prize to Reinvent the Wood Stove

An X-Prize design challenge with a $5 million dollar purse would get plenty of attention in the stove world. But would it transform the market? New technology needs to be in demand for innovation to be successful.
By John Ackerly | April 24, 2018

An X-Prize design challenge with a $5 million dollar purse would get plenty of attention in the stove world. But would it transform the market? New technology needs to be in demand for innovation to be successful.

Since the 1950s, there have been three major technology advances in wood heating: the first was effective catalytic and noncatalytic secondary combustion in wood stoves that emerged after the 1988 U.S. EPA emission regulations; the second was the invention and development of the pellet stove that began in the late 1980s and ‘90s. The third is the development of very advanced, automated wood and pellet central heating systems that emerged in Europe, and entered the U.S. market in the past 15 years.

We think the next evolution in wood and pellet stoves is more advanced automation that lets computers improve convenience, maximize efficiency and minimize emissions, just like they do in our cars, and virtually every other modern combustion appliance. One key component is the lower cost oxygen or “lambda” sensors that measure oxygen in the flue gases, and can adjust the air controls according to the precise characteristics of the fuel in the appliance that day.

We need the same innovation and automation that is making homes and appliances smarter and more convenient.  A good comparison is some of the basic communications we get from our car: bell tells us when we haven’t put on our seat belt, an indicator light turns warns us when our tire pressure is low, when we forget to turn off the head headlights or when the oil gets dangerously low. These communications improve the safety and usability of the technology, and protect our investment from being damaged.

A bell alerting us to a potential chimney fire would be like the light on the dashboard of car that signals the oil is dangerously low. A light signaling the need to clean parts of your pellet stove would be like the low tire pressure signal from your car. 

But until manufacturers start adding things like this, consumers won’t know the potential exists—and older consumers are likely to resist the idea at first. However, if people see that automation works, improves efficiency and helps extend the life of appliances, there is good chance these features will be embraced.

Consider this: “Time-of-day” electricity pricing could open up major opportunities to save money with wood or pellet heat. For instance, homes with both heat pumps and a wood or pellet stove could use heat pumps when electricity is cheaper (typically at night), and use their wood or pellet stove during the more expensive peak hours. A smart home could automatically shift from electric to pellet heating throughout the day as prices shift.

Another major innovation would be electricity generation. Would you be interested in a wood stove that could recharge your tablet or cell phone, and power the lights in your home? In five years, there may even be a wood or pellet stove or boiler that affordably generate half as much electricity as residential solar panels during winter months in the northern parts of the North America and Europe.

The X-Prize would be happy to host a next-generation wood stove competition, but it requires outside groups to put up the prize money.  If you don’t come from a sector that has companies, foundations or governments willing and able to sponsor an X-Prize, then it doesn’t happen.

Needless to say, we do not have $5 million to use the X-Prize platform.  Luckily, many in the renewable wood heat community are mission-driven, and will compete on the National Mall mostly for bragging rights. And one or more of them may transform the market. 

Our strategy is to hold that wood stove design competition ourselves, and see if we can galvanize enough creative talent to help reinvent one of the oldest technologies on the planet: the fire that keeps people warm in winter.  How clean can it get? How might new technologies transform the industry, and how will government agencies respond if we can show that stoves can be consistently clean and efficient in the hands of consumers, at a reasonable price?  The 12 stoves on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Nov. 9-13, will hold some of those answers.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat