Thursday, February 23, 2023

Comment Submitted by AGH on Howard County's Proposed "Clean New Buildings Climate Act"

Howard County, Maryland, will soon be considering passing the "Clean New Buildings Climate Act" (CB5-2023). AGH recently submitted a comment to the councilmembers in support of the bill as a whole, but with some concern on guardrails for electric resistance warm air furnaces and considerations for wood stove users. Find the official comment below. 

"Dear Councilmembers:

The Alliance for Green Heat (AGH), a non-profit based out of Takoma Park, MD focused on advocating for green heating strategies, urges you to support the Clean New Buildings Climate Act (CB5-2023). Howard County has the opportunity to play a role in progressing the state towards a decarbonized future in the residential energy sector. 

We also urge you to add language that would explicitly restrict installation of built-in electrical resistance heating as a primary source of heat. Built-in electrical resistance heating is not low carbon, not energy efficient, and could possibly strap low-to-moderate income (LMI) households with a higher energy cost burden. Electric resistance warm air furnaces or baseboard heat is the cheapest form of central heating to install, and the most expensive to run.  Thus, developers of low-income housing use it to cut down construction costs, and pass the operational costs onto the tenants. This is an important equity concern as the energy transition moves forward.

We see that you have some language to promote lower carbon heating but it does not go far enough. The section, (D) Considerations, does ask to “the maximum degree possible” that energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions be prioritized when installing appliances, particularly in affordable housing, but this is not a hard enough line to keep developers in check. The promotion of low carbon heating, like heat pumps, and the restriction of electrical resistance heating must be made explicit. In 2022, Montgomery County failed to include these considerations in their Bill 13-22 “Comprehensive Building Decarbonization.” According to 2021 Census data, electricity is Howard County’s top heating fuel with over 59,000 residents relying on electric sources (American Community Survey, 2021). This makes it all the more important to guide users who are used to electricity towards the adoption of heat pumps when planning new homes. 

The country is heading in the right direction, with heat pumps outpacing gas furnace sales in 2022 (Olano, 2023), but we need all the policy language help we can get to keep heat pumps at the top of the list for new installations. Studies show that built-in electric resistance heating options should ideally only be used as auxiliary heating sources combined with heat pumps in order to deliver lower emissions and improve energy efficiency (Pistochini et al., 2022). But now, colder climate heat pumps should not need any electric resistance back-up. There should be intense scrutiny on energy efficient heating appliance options in new builds and heat pumps consistently deliver desirable results. (The coefficient of performance (COP), the ratio pertaining to useful heating/cooling to energy required, of heat pumps outside of the laboratory setting ranges from 1.4 to 3.5 or higher (Carroll et al., 2020). This is compared to built-in electrical resistance heating’s COP 1.0.

We also ask that you keep wood and pellet stoves in mind as a viable bridge or backup fuel for households in Hartford County. For many people, a wood stove back-up provides the security to make the transition to heat pumps. If electricity does go out, they have a reliable, renewable, and locally sourced form of backup heat available. For perspective, in the last two weeks (February 8th - February 22nd), Howard County had a total of 6,839 customers that experienced a power outage (Maryland Power Outages, 2023). While we have hope that the energy grid will expand enough to support broad electrification plans (Rewiring America, 2022), many are apprehensive that the energy grid will go through some growing pains, especially with the added weight of a changing climate (Marsh, 2022). This is especially important for rural and low and middle income (LMI) households.  The state of Maryland started a grant program for cleaner, higher efficiency wood and pellet stoves partially as an equity measure, to support a renewable technology favored by lower income rural families, and not just provide grants for solar and geothermal systems which are often out of reach for lower income families (Maryland Energy Administration).

Lastly, we are a member of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), which also includes manufacturers, retailers and advocates of renewable wood and pellet heating.  Many of us support electrification policies and restrictions on new gas hook ups.  HPBA also represents manufacturers of gas stoves, fireplaces and barbecues and that part of the association is threatened by restrictions on gas. Thus,  the official position of HPBA is to fight restrictions on gas hook-ups, as in all large organizations, there is a diversity of opinion among rank and file members.

Supporting the Clean New Buildings Climate Act (CB5-2023) is a smart move for Howard County residents and a welcomed action that joins many others across the country to decarbonize residential heating."

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Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Firewood bank leaders hold first national meeting

More than 30 leaders of firewood banks receiving Forest Service funding via the Alliance for Green met
online to discuss the challenges their banks face and how Forest Service funding can help them better serve low-income households in their communities. 

This was the first time that many of the funded firewood banks met the heads of other banks and realized that they were part of a much larger national network.


The meeting was convened by the Alliance for Green Heat and featured a short talk by Brian Brashaw, Assistant Director for Wood Innovations at the US Forest Service, who are providing the funding for this program.


The purpose of the meeting was to explore how firewood banks can support one another and share information that would help other banks.  


During the meeting, bank leaders described a wide variety of organizations and activities, not all of which were even called “firewood banks.”  The underlying commonality is that they all provided free firewood to needy households.  Beyond that, the differences may be greater than the similarities.  Several tribes ran operations that resembled a small firewood utility, an entity responsible for delivering heating fuel throughout the winter.  Other banks only provided firewood on an emergency basis, when a household ran out of all other fuel.  Another bank served families who had gone through a rigorous eligibility screening process run by a state-supported agency and who could also receive LIHEAP benefits.


The way in which each firewood bank procures wood is as diverse as their geographic locations. From simple plans like receiving donations from downed trees on town streets to working with loggers thinning forests at risk of wildfire.  One bank serving tribal homes had equipment and staffing to process 7 cords an hour.  At the other end of the spectrum were small banks who were able to stop splitting wood by hand and use hydraulic splitters with this year’s funding. Obtaining wood becomes its own case study as the public-private-community lines intersect.  


As firewood bank leaders shared their stories, we were reminded of how critical wood heating and access to firewood is for some households. Robin, with the Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI), shared with us that on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where OLCERI operates, housing is “woefully inadequate for the cold,” and that “people literally die in their homes every year, they’re freezing to death.” Providing wood for their community is a lifesaving action. For as many “thank yous” that we received from the firewood banks during the meeting, a thousand “thank yous” are owed back to them for doing their incredible work.


One conclusion based on this year's funding is that there may be far more wood banks than anyone realized and there is no easy way to reach them.  Wood banks emerge from churches, tribes, non-profits, town and county offices because it is the cheapest way to provide heating fuel to homes, and households heating with wood are not well-served by federal and state low-income heating programs. For some firewood banks, providing wood for heating is a service they have offered in the last decade while others, like the Nez Perce tribe, have long relied on and supplied wood to their community. Howard Teasley Jr., Director of the Forestry and Fire Management Division of the Nez Perce Tribe, shared that they have “dealt with fuel wood since life immemorial,” serving around 350-400 homes per year. 


Map showing the location of firewood banks funded in this cycle. 
Yellow represents faith-based banks, purple represents tribal banks, 
and green represents non-profit banks.

While all these firewood banks provide free firewood, like food banks, each one is distinctive.  One bank provides firewood to people with terminal illnesses who have run out of money.  Some provide multiple deliveries to each house through the winter, while others just provide a single delivery. Some firewood banks take steps to verify heating needs before delivering wood while others approach distribution with a no-questions policy. If someone says they need it, they give it.     

Other stakeholders working with firewood banks attended the meeting including Larry Brockman of the EPA's Burnwise program, Clarisse Hart of the Harvard Forest, Jessica Leahy of the University of Maine, Sean Mahoney from the State of Massachussetts and others.


The $590,000 for first year grants is going to 47 banks and applications for this year are now closed.  Congress provided funding for a 5-year period and the Alliance for Green Heat expects to announce updated criteria for the second-year funding cycle in the spring.


To stay up-to-date on when the next funding becomes available, sign up for updates at the bottom of this page.

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