Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Alaska wood stove regulations – cleaning the air or a proxy war?

On Sept. 26, the EPA issued a resounding victory to Alaska’s strategy for improving the air in the Fairbanks area, rebuking virtually all of industry’s objections.  That victory came from the approval of Alaska’s State Implement Plan (SIP) to reduce wood smoke PM2.5 in the Fairbanks non-attainment area.

In essence, Alaska proposed different and stricter standards for wood stoves to be sold and installed in Fairbanks.  They will not allow cordwood boilers, coal heaters, stoves that emit more than 2 grams, or stoves that emit more than 4 or 6 grams during any hour of testing, and multiple other restrictions.  All of this helps. HPBA and more than a dozen wood stove manufacturers mounted a major effort to beat back the Alaska regulations, making the case that much of Alaska’s approach was arbitrary and capricious, not based on evidence, contradicted federal standards, etc. etc.  EPA’s ruling took the side of Alaska on every issue, often by simply stating that states have the authority to be more stringent than federal standard, rather than addressing the details of industry’s points.


Why this is a big deal

What everyone needs to understand is that the little city of Fairbanks Alaska has become a proxy war in a much larger struggle over the future of wood stove testing.  Much of Alaska’s work to review stove certifications did not address air quality in Fairbanks, but it does have major national ramifications.  Alaska developed its own list of stoves that could be installed in Fairbanks that was not based solely on emissions criteria.  Instead, it was mainly based on whether the certification paperwork was complete, and they could verify that the test labs correctly followed EPA stove testing regulations, despite the existence of some grey areas.  This set-in motion an unheralded level of scrutiny on testing done by all EPA approved labs, and sent the EPA into an embarrassing tail-spin, as they showed that the EPA had abdicated its role in effectively overseeing its certification program.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough 
(FNSB) non-attainment map.

Alaska’s scrutiny of certification paperwork was sometimes clumsy, and they found hundreds of details were missing, requiring manufacturers to show them that they often were there, but just difficult to find.  EPA has never provided a consistent format for labs to report data and it has been difficult to get the EPA to confirm which details needed to be included in the certification reports. But usually the details Alaska could not find were in fact missing and they uncovered serious patterns and deficiencies in many certification reports, something that few in industry are willing to admit. Those deficiencies had been in plain sight for years, but nobody looked carefully enough. The EPA, scrambling to show they take wood stoves seriously, began a slow but steady process to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  They commenced their own review of certification paperwork and over a year later, they are now sending letters to manufacturers requiring them to provide missing data.  Moreover, they are taking the unique step of requiring some stoves to be retested, similar to the audit testing that HPBA fought against.


The significance of the EPA’s ruling on Alaska’s SIP is difficult to summarize, as it has many highly technical themes, each one difficult to assess on its own merits.  Suffice it say that the stove community is in the midst of a historic period of change that had already started with the 2016 EPA decision to design new stove testing protocols, using the Integrated Duty Cycle (IDC) model developed by NESCAUM. Alaska has now tipped the balance of power toward a wider review of EPA’s certification program – and its enforcement and compliance unit.  One manufacturer went so far to say that Alaska had improperly pre-empted the EPA by creating a “de facto federal standard.”  There is the possibility that other states may follow Alaska’s approach, either through regulations or voluntary programs like change outs.  


AGH believes the Alaska initiative has had several positive impacts.  First, it’s made labs test stoves more carefully, and properly dot their i’s and cross their t’s.  Secondly, it forced the EPA to take their wood heater certification program more seriously, run it more professionally and better understand the grey areas that they had unknowingly included in the 2015 stove regulations.  


The long term view

But the most important outcome is something that all parties can agree on: understanding how to improve test methods so that they encourage engineers to design stoves that will perform better in the hands of consumers.  This is what we all are working for.  Alaska has now brought attention, if not clarity, to scores of issues that make for an effective certification program.  A good certification program needs clear guidance to manufacturers and labs and it needs a compliance program.

AGH is hopeful that this process will lead to genuinely cleaner stoves that get put through their paces in a test lab just as homeowners will use that stove. It’s useful to consider other EPA certification testing programs and the decades it has taken to understand their weaknesses and reform them, so consumers are getting products that work well in the real world.  

EPA auto emission standards
got stricter - and more realistic.
Automobile testing, for example, went through similar stages.  A revolution in auto testing, in the words of one expert, happened when manufactures were “motivated to produce emission controls that not only pass emission certification testing, but also remain functional when vehicles are in real-world use.”  Admittedly, the auto industry is massive and can afford levels of R&D and compliance that are impossible for the tiny, but resilient wood stove industry. Herein lies the rub: how far can the EPA and manufacturers be pushed to make lasting changes? Both are resource constrained.  Will the EPA stay focused on this program?  If they don’t, will other states undertake their own initiatives?  Will some manufacturers just quit making wood stoves and focus on their carbon intensive but profitable gas appliances? And does their industry association have the leadership and vision to steer industry through this, or will they focus more on legal and regulatory battles that may be difficult to win.  Many of the large stove manufacturers, including the biggest three, have already let their memberships lapse, for a variety of reasons.

AGH believes we need a hearth industry that can produce appliances clean enough to help households get off fossil heating fuels.  We are not there yet, except with pellet stoves and boilers which work well in the hands of consumers and can easily be improved even more.  Most New England states have incentives for pellet heating and western US states should adopt those policies as well. The electrification movement and more extreme and frequent weather events may solidify the demand for wood stoves.  Pellet heating deserves far more incentives.

A set-back for federal change-out funding

The Alaska initiative has also been very problematic and in some ways damaging.  A NESCAUM report made the implausible claim that the EPA cannot assure that new certified stoves are in fact cleaner than old, uncertified ones.  Actual lab and field testing has repeatedly found the opposite to be true.  This report helped scuttle federal legislation sought by HPBA that would have provided tens of millions for change-out programs.  The irony is that much of that funding would have helped lower-income families switch to fuels that produce less PM (but maybe more carbon), like gas, pellets, or electricity (heat pumps).  This occurred during the year that Congress increased the tax credit for high efficiency stoves, which benefits higher income taxpayers.  Change-outs also require professional installation which often reduces future PM, whereas a very large percent of stoves bought with the tax credit are self-installed.

Like America, the stove community has become even more divided, making the process of developing new test protocols more contentious.  It is unclear what individual or entity has the leadership to bring the sides together to hash out the scores of issues in a truly productive way that could reduce the bitter and litigious atmosphere. The Alaska initiative did not help but it could set the stage for more collaboration, if someone can facilitate it.  Up until a few years, 90% of the expertise in stove testing was within industry and the test labs they work closely with to certify their stoves.  This process has changed that dynamic, forcing more people at EPA and state agencies understand the regulations and the science behind stove testing.  

This NYT image shows extremely
slow growth of renewables in our
electric supply, an impediment
to the electrification movement.

There is also little consensus about the future of wood and pellet heating in America.  This process is being driven by air quality agencies who usually don’t take carbon into consideration.  Thus, even if a pellet stove fueled mainly by residuals from sawmills has higher PM than a gas stove, these officials may lean more heavily on the gas scales.  In the US, there is scant leadership that there is in most of Europe promoting certain types of high efficiency wood and pellet heating as part of the renewable energy solution, at least until our grids have a majority of renewable electricity on them.  The EPA – and Alaska – often claim to work under a technology neutral rubric, although neither is technology neutral, nor should they be.  They both need to more aggressively promote cleaner, lower carbon appliances.  The EPA and Alaska even struggle to officially tip the scales more towards pellet appliances, even though their air quality mandate should make that an obvious policy direction. Luckily, while EPA works on how to test stoves, the DOE is funding a complementary process – building innovative, next-generation wood stoves.

Industry has vital expertise that must go into the process of developing new stove testing protocols.  Many individual manufacturers also will be gathering vital test data from internal testing that they could share with the EPA.  NESCAUM is also developing data which they should share at some point. We need thoughtful leadership on both sides to make sure we get genuinely effective test methods that incentivize manufacturers to do the kind of R&D that will lead to stoves that work well in homes.  Industry sometimes seems to think the rule making process should still be a "reg neg" - a negotiated rulemaking that emerged in the 1980s and was used in the first wood heater NSPS.  Reg negs were supposed to reduce the overly adversarial process of traditional rulemaking.  This is not a reg neg but still, effective cooperation and communication can be extremely beneficial.

The lengthy process that led to the 2015 NSPS regulations did not lead to a new generation of cleaner stoves, like the 1988 regulations did.  But we are now asking the right questions and we better understand the nature of beast that we are trying to control.  Who will step forward and reset the relationship between industry and air quality agencies?

Monday, September 20, 2021

A DOE program that invests in next generation wood stoves

Prof. Nordica MacCarty, right, from 
Oregon State University, just won
a third round DOE grant.

The DOE just completed its third round of funding for novel and innovative wood heater designs, selecting teams from Oregon State University and the University of Alabama.  To date, the program has now invested about $11 million in the wood and pellet heating sector.  The program seeks to modernize the most common renewable energy technology in American homes – the traditional wood stove – which is in 10% of all households.

Wood stoves are often not included in the vision for clean renewable energy but they have done more than any other technology to reduce fossil fuel use in American homes in recent decades thus far.  The far more modern cousin of the wood stove, the pellet stove, is already automated in many ways and consistently cleaner and more efficient than the wood stove.  The DOE program is investing in novel wood stove technologies to address excessive wood smoke in many communities, particularly in western states where stoves are popular and weather inversions trap smoke near the ground.

Professor Nordica MacCarty, who just won a $2.5 million grant, says her team will make stove “prototypes operationalized with closed-loop sensors and control algorithms. Plans are in place for market transformation with regulatory oversight and open-source knowledge sharing among partner manufacturers and the industry at large.”  The DOE requires that teams work with existing stove manufacturers or develop other plans to get their inventions on the market. 

Taylor Myers, Chief Technical Officer
at MF Fire, doing very early testing on
movement characteristics of fire.

A review of the seven projects funded so far show that the DOE is focusing on automated controls and sensing technologies that mimic the controls in other combustion technologies, from the automobile to power plants. There is little published data to date about the results of the DOE investment and stoves supported by the DOE are just getting to the market.

MF Fire, a Baltimore based start-up company, got 2 awards the first year.  One is a “smart monitoring and real-time guidance” device that can be added to any stove.  The other is a stove with “swirling combustion technology” designed to reduce PM and be a novel, visual focal point in the room, according to Ryan Fisher, the company’s COO.


SBI’s grant from DOE is being used to build an automated stove which has been delayed due to Covid. Louis-Pierre Côté, SBI’s Director of Product Development, told AGH that the stove is designed to “burn efficiently even though the user makes operating mistakes, and it should be easier to light the stove and should then reduce the number of misfires.”

The SBI team that designed an early 
prototype of an automated stove that
won awards at the 4th Wood Stove 
Design Challenge in 2018.

The DOE program, part of larger grant cycle run by the Bioenergy Technology Office within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) complements the efforts of the EPA to regulate the emissions of residential wood stoves.  The EPA has never invested in the R&D of cleaner stoves but its first set of regulations in 1988 resulted in a rapid and universal technology upgrade for all stoves.  Since then, many experts say technology has stalled. While stoves can perform well in the lab, they are all still manually operated so that in the hands of consumers, they can still perform poorly.

“There is a mismatch between the EPA’s regulations and the DOE programs because the EPA is still embroiled in the ongoing clash between industry and air quality agencies over how to test manually operated stoves,” said John Ackerly, President of the Alliance for Green Heat. The DOE is investing in the future - stoves with automated controls - but these stoves may be at a disadvantage using the EPA’s test protocols designed for manually controlled stoves.  Manufacturers have had little incentive to build automated stoves and must design their own alternative test protocols which need to be approved by the EPA.  

Each of the six projects are ambitious and highly innovative and they should start to hit the market in the next few years.  Until they pass EPA certification and are in the marketplace, its hard to prove that they are able to match their vision with a clean stove that consumers will want to buy.  Assuming the DOE maintains the program, over time it is likely to have a major impact on a technology sector that is not known for high-tech innovation.

MF Fire, Swirl Stove

SBI/ISB, Automated stove

Ohio State, Simulation drive automated stove

NTRE Tech, Fluid bed combuster

Oregon State, Forced air and automated controls

University of Alabama, Autonomous Stove 


The DOE is expected to announce its next round of wood heater grants early next year.