Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Maryland: A social justice case study in residential renewable energy incentives

Maryland, like many states, provides generous grants to families who can afford solar, geothermal and wind systems. The only major renewable left out of Maryland’s programs is wood for heat, despite the existence of modern, clean burning systems like pellet stoves and advanced wood combustion (AWC) that are popular in Europe.

In 2009, the State of Maryland invested $3,920,000 in residential wind, solar and geothermal energies to subsidize 873 families or small businesses to lower their carbon footprint. This averages out to giving about $4,500 to these 873 families to eliminate 2,205 metric tons of carbon per year. This comes to $90 per ton of carbon, assuming a 20-year lifespan of the systems, excluding all the administrative costs incurred by the state to run the program. The price per ton of carbon avoided through Cash for Clunkers was estimated to be $50 by one authoritative source and in excess of $200 by some critics.

While the Alliance for Green Heat support incentives for solar, wind and geothermal, the incentives tend to go to families whose joint incomes are likely in excess of $150,000 because the upfront costs are usually $20,000 - $30,000 with 5 – 15 year payback periods. Giving checks to the wealthiest Maryland citizens, when tens of thousands of low-income Maryland residents are struggling to pay their utilities and their food bills is an ethical issue that has received scant public consideration.

If Maryland had used that same budget, $3,920,000, to subsidize modern, low emission pellet stoves or advanced wood combustion systems, it could have helped three times more families and helped working families install systems that would help them lower their utility bills with only a 2 -5 year payback period. And, we could reduce 3 or 4 times as much carbon, costing the state about $25 per ton.

The beauty of the modern pellet or wood stove is that it emits under 2 or 3 grams of particulates per hour, unlike traditional stoves that emit 30 – 40 grams per hour. Modern stoves cost $2,000-3,000 (including installation) and are already popular in rural, low-income areas where many Maryland residents get their fuel from storm-felled trees or the wood waste stream.

Maryland renewable energy subsidies comparison*
Renewable energy
CO2 Offset
Households effected
1,293 metric tons
718 metric tons
194 metric tons
2,205.5 metric tons
8,820 metric tons
· Note: Table provided for comparison purposes only. The Alliance for Green Heat does not advocate replacing incentives for solar, geothermal and wind, only adding wood heat to the list of approved technologies.
· The number of woodstoves incentivized is calculated from a $1,000 per stove grant, or about one third to one half the purchase price. The CO2 offsets are calculated by converting the heat source or electricity displaced with each energy source into equivalent CO2.

Maryland’s low-income population has been largely overlooked in renewable energy policy. There are other little-known benefits of wood heat: low-income families who heat primarily with wood are 2 – 3 times less likely to be on public heating assistance than low-income families using fossil fuel heat. Wood allows families to be self-sufficient and it usually directly offsets imported heating oil, or electric heat -- which in Maryland is primarily made with coal.

Solar panels remain out of the grasp of low and middle income families in Maryland, where the median household income is $70,000. Geothermal and wind energy tell similar stories. It’s time to include low-income households in the state’s renewable energy policy. Luckily, Maryland has progressive officials who are interested and open to the benefits of wood heat as long as modern, low emission systems are being considered.

Wood heat is great at reducing our carbon footprint, but it can’t do what solar and wind can: efficiently provide electricity. Similarly, wood can meet needs that solar and wind can’t: efficiently provide space heating. These technologies together will be far more effective than any of them alone.

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