Thursday, December 6, 2018

The US needs an eco label for wood and pellet heaters

Europe’s extensive experience with stove eco-labels shows clear benefits

While Europe is far behind the US when it comes to national stove emission standards, European wood stove and wood smoke regulation is far ahead of the US in some ways.  Much of the credit is due to Europe’s history of using eco labels.  National regulations in the US, such as the 1988 and 2015 EPA regulations, only provide a floor below which stoves cannot go.  And efforts to keep that floor as low as possible to allow the sales of low-performing technology allows the entire industry to play by same low standards.

Jan. 2020 update: Germany's Blue Angel eco-label announces a innovative new standard primarily for stoves that have automated air supply and electrostatic precipitators.

Eco labels provide incentives to make stoves cleaner and more efficient.  In turn, those higher standards can influence the entire market. Eco-labels also provide a ready-made structure for change out and incentive programs to move the market toward cleaner and more efficient devices.  In the US, virtually all new stoves qualify for the federal tax credit and change out programs, abdicating one of the best opportunities to improve the stock of stoves in the country.   

Europe is battling the same problem as the US with wood stoves that perform far worse in the field than they did in the lab.  A recent German report concluded that “there aren’t enough incentives to develop more sophisticated technical solutions to reduce emissions in the real-world.”  One of the only solutions is to include sensors and microprocessors so that stoves can optimize combustion on their own. European stove producers have undertaken R&D with automated functions far more than US producers, leading to promising designs.  An eco-label could recognize these advances and help these stoves gain a foothold in the market.  

Without an effective eco-label, R&D support, and meaningful incentives, stove technology could easily languish again, as it did after the minimum 1990 NSPS and 1995 Washington State regulations were met.  While pellet stoves were far cleaner, their efficiencies were often very poor, because there was no motivation to produce cleaner or higher efficiency units.  

The increase of stove sales and usage since 2000 has resulted in greater air pollution in both Europe and the US, leading to outright bans in some areas and a much harder road for stoves to be accepted as a top tier renewable energy technology.  Without a way for consumers and policy makers to easily distinguish between the best available technology and mediocre technology that just meets the minimum national emission standards, the fate of even the best stove technology is uncertain.

A recent workshop hosted by International Cryosphere Climate Initiative in Amsterdam for European stove producers highlighted the threats that existing stove technology and testing regimes face, as European nations take more aggressive stances against wood stoves without turning to pellet technology as a solution.  

In Europe, there is a new push for a pan-European eco label that would recognize the cleanest and most advanced units.  Progressive members of the European industry association, CEFACD, are pushing for this label to counter public perceptions that stoves are simply too dirty for the modern world.  Currently, the required EU labelling scheme only looks at efficiency, similar to the Energy Star program in the US.  But efficiency is not as important as cleanliness in the field.  The Alliance for Green Heat has tried to reform the federal tax credit to consider both PM and efficiency, but we are only making progress on the efficiency front.  After years of campaigning, the efficiency listings on the EPA stove list may finally be used, ending a decade of widespread industry misinformation.

Eco labels are not a silver bullet, and weak ones can even be a form of greenwashing.  Several European labels have struggled to only recognize the top of the market instead of the broad majority of units, a problem that the US Energy Star label has also faced.  To keep eco labels effective and relevant, their eligibility criteria needs to be updated as technology improves.

Eco labels can also help advance pellet stove technology which has proved to be relatively clean in the field.  Few nations have capitalized on advanced pellet stove and boiler technology to tackle the fossil fuel domination of the heating sector.  In the meantime, the electrification of heating is advancing quickly though heat pumps.  

Efficient cold climate heat pumps are an excellent technology and can be paired with pellet units.  In other cases, pellet technology is still preferable.  Austria has made great strides in pellet boilers, and regional R&D and incentives are helping the nation accept the technology.  But the only country in the world to embrace advanced pellet stove technology is, surprisingly, Italy.  In the US, New England states provide incentives for expensive pellet boilers, but have largely ignored pellet stoves, which still have huge potential. 

Industry wants sales but the periodic surge of wood stoves sales can backfire.  In the UK, the government foolishly gave incentives for basic, manually operated wood stoves, which helped fuel a rapid rise in wood smoke that is now causing a legitimate backlash.  In Denmark, a surge of sales occurred when the Baltics became part of the European Union, allowing cheap imported cord wood to make wood heating more affordable than renewable district heating.  In the US, the surge happened from 2000 – 2008, leading to an increased use of burn bans and a push for a stricter NSPS.  And local events like the Montreal ice storm of 1998, ended up motivating the city of Montreal to take one of the most radical steps of banning the use of existing stoves, including many certified stoves that emit more than 2.7 grams an hour.   Now many European cities are looking at Montreal style solutions.  All of these examples could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, if federal, state, and local agencies created a better foundation for pellet heating.  

The slow sales of pellet stoves and boilers would benefit from a recognizable eco label that identified the top performers.  However, when wood and pellet equipment producers are represented by the same industry association, the producers of wood stoves and boilers that just meet the minimum standards can be a powerful force in opposing eco-labels.  And this leads us back to where we are today, without sufficient recognition and incentives for the very best wood and pellet technology. 

A lack of leadership and interest from the EPA, DOE, and wood stove industry has prevented Energy Star from developing a program for wood and pellet stoves.  And, Energy Star is founded on the goal of reducing fossil fuel usage, so reducing the use of wood and pellets doesn’t easily fit.  If a new eco label emerges in Europe, it could be adopted and used in the US and Canada if it had the backing of enough stakeholders. Or, European brands could simply start using a European label and try to gain recognition among North American consumers.

Wood and pellet stoves sales in the US are declining, and this decline is likely to continue with winters gradually warming, fossil fuel prices staying relatively low, and greater awareness of the health impacts of wood smoke.  If the status quo isn’t working, maybe it’s time to try something different.  Think eco label.

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