Thursday, May 6, 2010

House Passes Home Star

By a vote of 246 to 161 the House of Representatives today voted to approve the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010 (H.R. 5019), which authorizes creation of a national energy retrofit program for American homeowners. The vote marks a significant milestone in the progress of the bipartisan HOME STAR legislation, although it's important to note that the authorization bill passed today must be matched by the Senate, and followed up with an appropriation bill to allocate funds for the $6 billion program.

Introduced by Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, Home Star will provide rebates on energy efficiency measures, including high efficiency biomass heaters. It will provide $1,000 point of sale rebate for biomass stoves and boilers that meet 75% of the homes heating needs. A lower $500 rebate will be available for smaller wood or pellet stoves for space heating and do not have ability to heat most of the home. For both levels of rebates, wood stoves are required to replace an existing wood stove, making this bill the first national wood stove change-out bill.

Home Star will also be the first national rebate program for biomass appliances ever and it establishes a strict emission threshold of 3 grams an hour both wood and pellet stoves, well below the EPA’s 7.5 grams per hour limit.

The biomass provisions were subject to intensive debates and negotiations around a number of points, including whether rebates for pellet stoves would also only be available for people who currently owned a wood or pellet stove. The Alliance for Green Heat, which has been advising the bill’s drafters from the start set aside our advisory role and aggressively tried to convince all stakeholders that pellet stoves should be available to first time buyers. Several environmental groups who were integral to the coalition were hesitant but a last minute agreement was reached. American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) played a vital mediating role through the entire process to ensure standards for biomass appliances paralleled the requirements for high efficiency oil and gas furnaces.

“We were lucky that Congressman Welch from Vermont was the primary sponsor of this bill because he understands the benefits and potential of wood pellet heating, but his office and ours wanted consensus among the major groups involved in designing and supporting Home Star,” said John Ackerly, President of the Alliance for Green Heat. (By chance, one of the primary architects of Home Star, Steve Cowell, CEO of the Conservation Services Group, heats his home with pellets.)

The moderate efficiency and emissions thresholds for boilers in Home Star became an area of contention very late in the game on the House side. In response to questions from Congressional staff, EPA recommended that Congress raise the efficiency threshold to 90% at the lower heating value. Efficiency and emissions standards for indoor boilers are extremely difficult to establish because the EPA has never regulated them and it has always been unclear where those thresholds should be. A report released in the last week of April by NYSERDA that was prepared by the Austrian group Bioenergy2020+ presents compelling data that residential boilers can be extremely clean and efficient and an 85% threshold at the lower heating value could have been used in Home Star

As it stands now, in both the House and Senate bills, boilers must be 80% efficient at the lower heating value (LHV) as accredited by an independent laboratory recognized by the EPA, unlike the federal 30% tax credit. An 80% LHV threshold would allow seven of the twelve Phase 2 qualified hydronic heaters to be eligible, including 4 that use stick wood and 3 that use pellets. While this establishes an even higher bar that Phase 2 alone, it also does permit the rebate to go to Phase 2 boilers that will be installed in states that have no set-back or stack height limits for hydronic heaters.

Equally important to the efficiency threshold, is what test is allowed to establish efficiency. Home Star almost required all boilers to be tested using Method 28, which was developed for outdoor hydronic heaters that are designed to cycle on and off and burn at lower tempuratures. The cleanest indoor boilers are designed to run at high tempuratures and do not necessarily perform well if they have to use a test designed by hydronic heaters.

The emissions limits for stoves had been set at 4.5 grams per hour for wood and 2.5 grams per hour for pellets, but at the initiative of a Congressional office, it was dropped to 3.0 for both wood and pellets, making a ground breaking standard for wood but almost a status quo standard for pellets.

One significant implication of the 3.0 gram per hour for a wood stove to replace an existing wood stove, is that to get the full $1,000 rebate, it must be able to meet 75% of the homes heating needs. In general, this requirement will favor smaller homes and larger stoves. For larger stoves to be under 3.0 grams an hour they will be more likely to be catalytic models, which may help begin a process of rejuvenating the catalytic stove lines that may continue under the revised EPA standards.

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