Thursday, July 6, 2023

10 States sue the EPA to improve wood stoves, but the grounds are dubious

Old stoves removed during change out
programs range from ones like these ...
Ten states and one large air agency filed a notice that they intend to sue the EPA over its weak wood stove testing, certification and enforcement programs. The lawsuit is one of the only ways to keep the agency on the required timeline of updating its wood and pellet heater regulations every eight years. Otherwise, the agency can easily let timelines slip and put wood heater policies and regulations on the back burner as both Republican and Democratic administrations have usually done.

The Alliance for Green Heat (AGH) supports the lawsuit for these reasons: EPA needs to keep focused on this technology and keep doing the testing that can get better test methods and stoves that operate better in the hands of the consumer. Automated wood stoves that use sensors, computer chips and actuators to mix the fuel and the air, like in cars, probably offer the best hope for cleaning up wood stoves. But they may be left out of the next updated regulations, known as New Source Performance Standards (NSPS).

... to stoves that are decrepid
and/or dangerously self-installed
However, AGH does not agree with much of the faulty narrative that says new stoves are not likely to be cleaner than old stoves. And maybe most worrisome is that the AGs of so many states appear willing to make such claims without citing data to support it. 

Unlike the dynamic around auto emissions, where car manufacturers are pitted against the EPA, in this case all fingers are pointed at the EPA for being too lax. The EPA’s wood heater program has had huge weaknesses and it is an easy target. But it is important to understand that the EPA is not a monolith, and it is the wood heater certification and enforcement programs in Washington that are far more of a problem than the section in North Carolina that does the test methods and change out programs.  

One of the many problems with the filing by 10 state Attorney Generals (AG) is that it is mainly based on a review of the EPA’s certification program done by the State of Alaska and Northeast   States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), with funding from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). It is not based on testing of new stoves in the field compared to old, uncertified stoves in the field. The narrative that the EPA has been wasting money on change-outs because new stoves aren’t necessarily cleaner than old ones seems to be gaining traction despite evidence to the contrary. Moreover, it distracts from the real, complex tasks at hand and is divisive. As a public relations strategy, it has been successful, gets good media coverage and rallies liberals.

The reality is far more complex. Ironically, it also misses what blue states care about: maximizing renewable energy in smart ways and creating more equity in the energy transition. Starting with the NESCAUM report, pellet appliances have been sidelined from the narrative and they are not even mentioned at a time when much of America is confused about the difference between premium heating pellets and industrial pellets to make electricity. If wood and pellet stoves are to play a role at helping the US reduce residential fossil fuel and protecting low to moderate income (LMI) households from the high costs of the new energy paradigm, it is vital for AG offices to understand the role of the technology in America. 

The Notice to Sue, likely leading to a lawsuit can be good for our common goals of getting cleaner wood stoves, but AG offices need to understand some things. First, we don’t need a new NSPS before we have new test methods. (One of NESCAUM’s many roles is providing data for new test methods, but compared to other labs, NESCAUM’s lab is way behind schedule, which complicates the whole timeline.) Second, the goal of getting better repeatability of a test result within a lab and between labs does not necessarily lead to a cleaner stove in the hands of homeowners. Third, tilting scales toward hybrid stoves may help in the short run, but is not necessarily a long-term or nationwide solution. Fourth, there has never been much agreement on what constitutes the best systems of emission reduction (BSR) in stoves which hinders the EPA in writing regulations that can force technology to change and improve. 

Wood and pellet heaters can help the nation in our transition to electrification by giving homeowners a back-up heating source, lowering stress on the grid during wintertime and providing LMI households protection from rising electricity costs which helps achieve equity. And environmental justice is improved in poor communities not just by a reduction in woodsmoke but also by improving energy security so that homes do not have to choose between heating and eating. For low-income households, change-out programs have been very important by removing unsafe stoves that pose a fire risk, improving not just ambient particulate matter (PM) and indoor PM, and adding heat pumps to many homes. 

The next NSPS will be best served by an EPA with the budget that enables them to collect their own data and properly manage the certification and enforcement programs, which are still far from effective. Underfunding leaves the EPA vulnerable to just reacting to one side or the other, and making poor decisions like revoking a cordwood test method that should have been changed and improved instead. That revocation was also prompted by the same group of states, most of which lack the expertise to understand the complexities and the politics of such a move. Tightening up that test method would have helped the EPA gather vital data it needs for this NSPS and not rely on data from parties who are sparring for an upper hand in the process.

The mostly blue states leading this lawsuit also need to manage wood and pellet heating far better in their own borders, as all states do. Vermont is a good model which is also heavily promoting heat pumps. States should be promoting pellet stoves and boilers and demanding stricter PM limits for those appliances. They should also limit the new installation of cord wood stoves in densely inhabited areas unless, or until, automation and mini-electrostatic precipitators can make cordwood units far cleaner. While cordwood stoves are essential for rural LMI households and help them get off fossil fuels, manually operated wood stoves are simply not a good energy solution where lots of homes are close together, particularly when the topography leads to frequent inversions, trapping PM close the ground where we breathe. 

As for the solution to reduce wood smoke in Fairbanks, even Albert Einstein would be scratching his head. Managers of that change-out program have done an admirable job and used many different strategies. They also uncovered huge problems in the EPA’s stove certification program which were hiding in plain sight. But we should not expect the next NSPS to make much of a dent in that intractable problem. 

Nationally, the solution lies in far more funding for R&D in stove technology, more attention to enforcement of current regulations, more experts for state AGs to rely on and collaboration. Like many big energy issues, the solutions are multi-faceted and rely on a collaborative approach by stakeholders. We should take this lawsuit as a wake-up call.

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