Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Property-Assessed Wood Stove and Boiler Loans on Rise

Berkeley, CA and Boulder, CO may be known in most of America for their ultra-liberal tendencies, but they have pioneered a renewable energy funding mechanism that is on its way to being implemented in Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia and many other states. It ties a loan for renewable energy systems to your property tax over a period of 20 – 40 years so whoever owns the property keeps paying down the loan. The Alliance for Green Heat researched how easy it will be for these loans to cover wood and pellet stoves and boilers.

To offer this sort of creative financing states need to pass enabling legislation and then the counties or municipalities that implement it, need to pass implementing regulations. To date around 15 states have already passed enabling legislation and 3 have pending, drafted legislation (AZ, NH & NY). Of all 18, CO, NV and NH identified biomass as being an eligible energy source. Seven other states (LA, MD, NC, OR, TX, VT and WI) stipulate "renewable energy" so presumably all renewables, including biomass, are included. In CO, funding can only be used to change-out an old wood or pellet stove unless your only source of heat is electric, which case it will cover a new installation.

Four states authorize "distributed generation renewable energy sources" which limits it to solar and wind, and precludes biomass and geothermal, as far as we can tell: CA, IL, OK and VA. NY authorizes only solar and wind. Two states specifically just authorize solar: NM & OH. AZ appears to be unique in that it may not be available to individual property owners but only to groupings of properties and focuses on water improvements.

Several states include financing for both renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, so biomass may be able to be included as energy efficiency device, as it is in the federal tax code.

These programs are known as Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) being promoted by the DOE, and a similar program, the Voluntary Environmental Improvement Bond (VEIB) is promoted by the EPA. Both programs are similar and states can merge the concepts and details. The VEIB concept can fund an even broader array of projects, and also has a focus on changing out wood stoves and outdoor wood boilers. EPA documents specifically explain that a payment for a new “$3,500 wood stove becomes less than $19 a month” under a VEIB program.

The Alliance for Green Heat is concerned that PACE type loans could be used to finance unregulated outdoor wood boilers in states that have not adopted legislation to ban installation of the most polluting models. The Alliance believes that PACE or VEIB funds should only be used to finance a EPA Phase II outdoor wood boiler.

To find out if your state is considering passing enabling legislation, contact the office in charge of renewable energy. Clean biomass systems could be excluded inadvertently in some cases and some states like Maryland is already amending their enabling legislation.

For more information, see http://pacenow.org/ and http://www.renewfund.com/.

Biomass in Copenhagen

Thermal biomass is a small piece of a big puzzle in Copenhagen this week, but one of the hottest topics is forestry – and deforestation - including for energy crops. At the center of this debate is how to incentivize maintaining existing forests and preventing land conversion, the same issues we grapple with in North America? One intersection of thermal biomass and climate talks in Copenhagen is the growing demand for “renewable” biomass energy crops by the developed world.

Reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) is one of the big expected substantive outcomes from Copenhagen. Tropical deforestation accounts for 20% of global greenhouse gases. No one disputes that slowing the pace of tropical deforestation is key to slowing climate change, but what causes tropical deforestation?
The leading cause today is commercial agriculture and demand for timber, pulp and paper. And demand from developed countries is a huge part of that. In fact, EU and US policy mandates crop-based biofuels is creating unintended consequences for tropical forests where rapid rise of oil palm plantations appear to be driven by international demand for biofuels. Could thermal energy biomass crops also begin to be a player in unsustainable forestry practices in developing countries?

Often, poor, indigenous peoples are blamed for deforestation and their role is key to solutions. Traditional livelihood practices such as cyclical cultivation and fuelwood production are not always unsustainable. Pro-poor development strategies for biomass harvesting and utilization are key in both developing and developed countries. In the US, low-income communities are often blamed for wood smoke emissions, even though government funding overwhelming goes to development of solar and wind and has largely ignored modernizing biomass renewable energy systems relied upon by the poor. Similarly, in developing countries, it is often larger institutional and political conditions that drive land use, energy use and land conversion.
The thrust of REDD is being torn between environmental groups that want conservation of old growth and others pushing fro “sustainable forest management.” As of December 15, key safeguards to protect indigenous people and biodiversity and limit forest conversion to plantations have been moved from the operative section of the REDD agreement to a non-binding preamble.

The REDD framework may have ramifications for trade in thermal biomass energy crops but it is key for the EU and others to police their own biomass imports. The 2003 EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade regulation was a major step forward for demand-side policy. But it was the US Lacey Act, passed in 2008, that may be the best model for simply prohibiting the import or export of illegally sourced timber and wood products. This landmark bill is sending shockwaves through the global timber industry by rewriting companies equation of risk and benefit in importing wood fiber. The thermal biomass industry needs to watch this closely and ensure that incentives to limit greenhouse gases in developed countries are not at the expense of deforestation and more greenhouse gases in developing countries.

Further Resources:
The REDD road to Copenhagen: Readiness for what? By Oversees Development Institute, December 2008, p. 2.

“Copenhagen: The Curse of REDD,” by Terra Lawson-Remer, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terra-lawsonremer/copenhagen-the-curse-of-r_b_391812.html.

Putting the Breaks on Drivers of Forest Destruction: A Shared Responsibility by the Environmental Investigation Agency, Dec. 2009, p. 4.

Wood Heat Helps Poor Households Feed their Families in Winter

More Americans are struggling with not having enough food to eat. The USDA’s November 2009 report shows the highest rate of food insecurity since reporting began nearly 15 years ago. During 2008, 17 million U.S. households – that’s about 49 million people – were food insecure and families had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during that year.

In many parts of the United States, winters can impose a financial burden. Low- income families have to choose between heating their homes, feeding themselves, and feeding their children.

Low income families who get some or all of their wood for free are cushioned from these tough choices and are not as likely to suffer food insecurity during the winter as families that have to pay for fossil fuels – especially expensive ones like oil, electricity and propane.

One study found that when poor families increased fuel expenditures in response to un- usually cold weather, they reduced food expenditures by roughly the same amount as their increase in fuel expenditures (whereas richer families increased food expenditures). The study concluded that poor parents and their children eat less food during cold-weather budgetary shocks and existing social programs fail to buffer against these shocks. (Am J Public Health. 2003;93:1149–1154)

Arkansas and New Mexico, two of the states that have among the highest per capita use of wood as the primary heat source are also have among the highest rates of food insecurity. In those states, 16% and 14% of families experience food insecurity. The worst state is Mississippi with 17.4% and the lowest is North Dakota with 6.9%.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Questioning Mom About Outdoor Wood Boilers

Mother Earth News published a AGH letter to the editor on unregulated OWB's:

Dear Mom,

Opening the last two issues, we were taken aback to see two full page ads for outdoor wood boilers (OWB) in the first pages of Mother Earth News. Some outdoor wood boilers are fairly clean and efficient, but most states in the US allow even the dirtiest, most polluting models to be installed. Your readers should know the difference.

Unregulated OWBs are the scourge of the clean wood burning movement, and continue to give wood burning a bad name. Only recently has the EPA set standards for OWBs, so if you buy one, no matter what state you live in, please make sure it is Phase 2 EPA certified. You will be doing the environment, your neighbors and yourself a huge favor.

Better yet, look into an indoor wood furnace or boiler, which are smaller and generally much more efficient and clean. Efficient models will save you thousands over the unit’s lifetime because they use much less wood to make the same amount of heat- saving you countless trips to the wood pile. Wood can be a fantastic renewable, low carbon, local fuel source.

As with all renewables, Europeans are decades ahead of us in developing wood as a mainstream, clean energy source. In parts of Austria, for example, installing a fossil fuel furnace is strongly discouraged or even disallowed because their pellet furnaces are so efficient and clean. While the EPA was allowing sales of unregulated OWBs to flourish, Europeans were investing in R&D and incentives to develop products that heat entire communities without the air quality concerns inherent to OWBs.

This is a great year to buy or upgrade your wood stove or furnace. The federal government is giving a 30% tax credit, up to $1,500 for high efficiency, certified wood stoves and furnaces. And many states give additional tax incentives. New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and South Dakota's incentives are geared towards wood furnaces or primary heating systems. Alabama, Idaho, Montana and Oregon (and soon West Virginia) all offer tax incentives for stoves or furnaces. For more details on the federal and state incentives, go to www.forgreenheat.org.

John Ackerly

Keene Sentinel Publishes AGH letter on Change out Program

Dear Editors,

Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 in Keene NH.
Keene is surrounded by hills,
trapping wintertime wood smoke.
The upcoming Keene woodstove changeout program could well become a national model for such programs. No other change out program in the US has had such a high rebate amount ($1,000) for all applicants.

But the long term benefits of the program will be undermined unless the City of Keene is able support it with some other measures. For example, anyone in Keene can go out and buy a new polluting wood stove that uses a loophole to avoid EPA emission standards, and install it tomorrow. What's the point of giving $1,000 rebates to take polluting stoves out of commission if you allow more polluting stoves to be installed? To remedy this, the Keene City Council needs to pass an ordinance requiring that any stove installed in Keene has to be EPA certified. This will also help prevent people from buying and installing old, second hand uncertified woodstoves in the City of Keene. Scores of old, polluting woodstoves are available in southern New Hampshire on Craigslist for as low as $75. Washington State and California already ban installing uncertified stoves but in most of the US anyone can buy a $200 stove made in China that can foul indoor air, as well as outdoor air.

Many of us in the woodburning community believe that to promote wood burning as a viable low carbon renewable energy, like wind and solar, we have to incentivize cleaner burning stoves, and phase out the most polluting ones. Woodstoves are an excellent and relatively inexpensive way to reduce your carbon footprint. A $1,000 - $2,000 woodstove can shave 3-4 tons of carbon from your carbon footprint every year, often the equivalent of what a $10,000 - $20,000 solar or geothermal system will shave off.


John Ackerly,
Alliance for Green Heat

Monday, October 5, 2009

Top Four Reasons to Use a Wood Stove

So why are we so crazy about wood burning?

4. The technology is not what your grandpa remembers! Modern stoves emit less particulate matter pollution than fireplaces, and pellet stoves emit next to nothing. Sometimes there's a stigma attached to wood burning, but that's only because back in the day stoves simply weren't as advanced as they are now.

3. It's part of a diversified energy efficient future! Any expert will tell you that we cannot rely on any single energy source for our nation. Every area and every energy usage has a different set of needs and suitable sources. Unlike solar and wind power, direct wood combustion is the most efficient use of wood energy.

2. It's clean and renewable! When sustainably harvested, wood and wood byproduct heating fuel is carbon-neutral, and can easily reduce your carbon footprint by 2 to 4 tons per year. Plus, it only takes a few decades to grow a tree compare to a few millennium to make fossil fuel.

1. It's affordable and stable! With ever fluctuating high fuel prices, traditional fossil fuel heating systems drive up energy expenditures substantially. Wood and pellet prices don't fluctuate as much, and are always cheaper. Plus, the upfront cost of installation is significantly less than wind, solar, or geothermal.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Keene Sentinel Publishes AFGH President's Analysis

Check it out: Keene Sentinel published John's opinion piece about the Change Out Program there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Consumer Reports Rates Pellet Stoves (and what they don't tell you)

Updated in Feb. 2021 - Consumer Reports just released their second assessment of wood and pellet stoves in the March 2021 issue. This was an educational article that had mostly accurate information, however the review of pellet stoves in their October, 2009 issue (pages 26-28) included actual product testing. 

The recent article in Consumer Reports highlighted the new 26% tax credit for wood and pellet stoves at 75% efficiency or higher, and it discussed the many differences between wood and pellet stoves.  Overall, its excellent information for consumers who are just learning about the technology.  Unfortunately, they made a few very obvious mistakes which would have been caught by any expert, if they had consulted one. For instance, they said "With a wood stove, federal safety standards require at least a 3-foot clearance from any wall or combustible material." Three feet clearances can apply to unlisted stoves but modern EPA certified stoves have an average clearances of 6-12 inches in the back and 10-18 on the side.  We urge Consumer Reports to consult with independent experts in the future and to make corrections on this article.

There are precious few independent, objective reviews of pellet or wood stoves so the 2009 product testing was a very welcome development. They reviewed six and recommend two.
The Harman P68, the most expensive
 and the most highly rated stove
by Consumer Reports. 

The Alliance for Green Heat also reviewed 6 stoves in 2015, including two of the ones reviewed by Consumer Reports.  Click here for the 2015 rating of pellet stoves.  The Alliance tested for cleanliness, efficiency, maintenance, heat output and glass visibility.  And click here for Six tips to buy the right pellet stove.

While the 2009 Consumer Reports (CR) stove ratings appear fair and objective, they did not test for or list information that is very important for consumers.  For example, they didn't list the emissions ratings, though these independent, third-party ratings are easy to look up online. While pellet stoves generally are very clean, and much cleaner than woodstoves, some are lots cleaner than others.   

They also did not touch on the issue of efficiency, which is extremely important with pellet stoves because they range from 50 – 80% efficiency and most manufacturer used to refuse to release third party efficiency numbers to consumers.  Today, they are required to.  In the past, most stove manufacturers calculated their efficiency using a variety of non-standard methods and often exaggerated the results, leading consumers to think they were purchasing a high efficiency appliance when in fact they may have purchased a pellet guzzling one.  All wood and pellet stoves now have third party verified, actual efficiency ratings. But when it comes to pellet stoves, misperceptions persist, year after year.

Consumer Reports did not mention which stoves were EPA certified and which aren't (as of 2016, all new pellet stoves must be EPA certified).  EPA certified pellet stoves tend to be higher efficiency.  As of May 2014, all the stoves rated by Consumer Reports were EPA certified except for the Napoleon NPS40, one of the higher ranked stoves.  The manufacturer confirmed in 2009 that it had not been emission tested but as of May 2014 a slightly modified version of the same stove tests at 2.4 grams an hour.  Prior to 2016, many manufacturers designed their pellet stove in a way that it doesn't have to be certified by the EPA. But by avoiding EPA certification, these designs usually lower the efficiency of the stove between 10 and 30%.

Also, Consumer Reports did not test for fan and augur noise. That is a common complaint with pellet stoves and an outfit like Consumer Reports is perfect for that kind of testing.  Unfortunately, there is still no entity that tests for fan or auger noise.

Consumer Reports also gave extremely short shrift to pellet stoves as a low carbon, renewable energy appliance. It did not say how much carbon could or would be offset by limiting use of a fossil fuel furnace. And, while it gave maximum payback times, it did not give best case/minimum payback periods, which can be in the 3-4 year range, depending on prices of fossil fuels that year and what type of fuel is avoided. As of fall of 2020, gas and even oil prices are very low, but pellet fuel can still save money for homes using propane, electric resistance or even oil or gas if a pellet stove allows you to only heat a smaller core part of a larger, leaky home.  

Overall, the Alliance for Green Heat believes that the CR stove ratings are fair and very useful for consumers. We only wish that next time, they test for emissions, efficiency and noise and that they mention the environmental benefits of using a low carbon fuel to replace fossil fuels. 

Here's a summary of the ratings. The review in the magazine has more details. (Pellet stoves may be eligible for state rebates or tax credits in New York, Maryland and elsewhere.  Since the CR review is now over 10 years old, some of these models aren't still in production or have been redesigned and retested - and they now cost more.

1. The highest ranking is a Harman P68 which got 87 points and costs $3,900. Harman is a recognized leader in the industry and is known for quality. (Emits 1.8 grams of particulate per hour).

2. The next highest is the Napoleon NPS40, at 85 points and price tag of only $2,350. (Emissions levels were not tested in 2009 when the review was done, but a similar, updated model has been tested at 2.4 grams an hour.)

3.  The Lopi Leyden received 75 points and sells for $3,600. (Emts .9 grams an hour.)

4. The Enviro Empress received 67 points and cost $2,900. (Emits 2 grams per hour.)

5. The Quadra-Fire Castile received 64 points and cost $2,700. (Emits 0.8 grams per hour).

6. Summers Heat (55-SHP10L at Lowes) also sold at Home Depot under the Englander brand received 58 points and cost $1,300. (Emits 1.6 grams per hour).

Click here for an in-depth and educational review of reliable pellet stoves.

Commentary: The EPA and the Future of Woodburning

The EPA is gearing up to revisit its woodstove emission policies (NSPS) for the first time since the late 1980s. The next year is vitally important for the wood burning community in America and is an unprecedented opportunity to not only advance wood burning technology, but to modernize the way we think about wood heat and develop a vision for the future. Why shouldn't we envision near zero emission wood heating appliances? How can wood get the same tax credits as wind and solar? Can we overtake Europe as the world's leader in clean, low carbon wood and pellet heat?

These are not pie-in-the-sky questions. A few years from now we could have electronically-controlled gasification wood and pellet stoves in our living rooms. These modern stoves would significantly lower emissions and increase efficiency compared to products that are now on the market. And with even a fraction of the support that our government has provided renewable biofuels, like ethanol, these appliances could provide affordable renewable heat to the average American. This process could gain momentum with the EPA review of its emission policies next year.

Even without incentivizing the next generation of wood stove technology, the cleanest biomass appliances on the market today deserves parity in tax credits with other renewable technologies. While most states give generous tax credits for wind and solar, those tax credits primarily benefit the wealthy who can afford the high up front costs and long payback periods. Meanwhile, millions of poor and middle-income families have been using low carbon wood heat and have not yet fully switched over to fossil fuel heating. Yet, only rarely do they get tax credits to upgrade to modern, clean burning wood heat. Per dollar invested, wood heat can lower a family's carbon footprint much faster than solar or electric. It’s time for states to help poor and middle-income families to change over to modern, clean biomass systems and not just help wealthier families adopt what are often less efficient solar and wind systems.