Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Wood stoves essential in transition to heat pumps, say tribal experts

Shaina Oliver is from the Northern
Navajo Nation and represented Mom's
Clean Air Force at the Conference. 
In a series of meetings at the annual National Tribal Forum on Air Quality , experts voiced a consistent message: as we install heat pumps in tribal homes, we should also keep wood stoves.

Nowhere are wood stoves as common as on many tribal reservations, who have long relied on both wood and coal for residential heating. Some homes are still being outfitted with coal stoves that can also burn wood, whereas wood stoves cannot safely burn coal.

There is a historic amount of money available to tribes and other underserved communities that can be used for residential home energy upgrades, and this funding was possibly the most common theme of the air quality conference, held on the land of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

AGH was part of a panel workshop along with EPA’s Burn Wise, the Tribal Healthy Homes Network, Red Feather Development Group, and the Nez Perce Air Quality Program. Among the core topics were how change-out funds can best be used, how to reduce indoor wood smoke, improving firewood bank programs, switching from wood to electric heat pumps, etc. Some change out programs have been conducted, but the number of dangerously installed old stoves remains enormous. AGH now has funding for tribal firewood banks, which includes assistance in seasoning wood, and steps toward getting stoves inspected and repaired.

From left: John Ackerly, Joe Seidenberg,
Darian Dyer, Larry Brockman and
Danielle Johnson.
AGH's funding for firewood banks is helping tribal communities in the four corners area to transition away from coal heat. According to Shaina Oliver, an indigenous people's rights advocate and field organizer for Mom's Clean Air Force, a treaty forced on the Navajo Nation included a deal to mine coal on Navajo land, and tribal members were given free coal for heating, cooking - or selling. But when the mine closed, thousands of households struggled to heat their homes, even though coal can still be scavenged in some places. "We may not be able to control what we breath outdoors, but we can control the indoor air quality," said Shaina Oliver, which is why the National Tribal Air Association has pushed for replacements of wood stoves to newer ones that reduce indoor smoke.

The key problem with the conversion to heat pumps is mainly that they are expensive, and it could take decades for even a majority of tribal homes to have them. “Wood heating is vital for maintaining healthy homes in the Navajo and Hopi Nations and it is deeply ingrained in their cultures, representing healing, remembrance, and togetherness,” according to Joe Seidenberg, Executive Director of Red Feather Development Group that has been involved in many change-outs on the Hopi and Navajo reservations, and has one of the best wood heat education sites in the country.

An abnormally high percent of 
wood stoves on reservations are
dangerously installed.

“While the wave of electrification and heat pump technology will bring significant benefits to these communities, wood heating will never be completely replaced,” Mr. Seidenberg said. “The Colorado Plateau, rich in forested landscapes, provides ample wood resources, and using this wood helps preserve healthy ecosystems by preventing catastrophic wildfires through active thinning operations,” he continued.

The number of people who identify as Native Americans in the US, jumped from around 5 million in 2010 to more than 9 million in 2020, with about 78% living outside of reservations. The highest percentage of Native Americans in the U.S. are in Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Montana, and North Dakota.

Compared to other races or ethnic populations, American Indian and Alaskan Native populations (AI/AN) have the highest poverty rates (24.1%)—almost twice the national rate (12.8%). Poverty, combined with living in rural areas, is one of the biggest determinants of whether wood or coal will be your primary source of heat.

For many of the large western tribes, particularly in the southwest, outdoor ambient wood smoke issues were far less of a problem than indoor wood smoke issues. As a result, there appears to be a trend away from wood stove change outs, toward a far more cost-effective solution: indoor air purifiers. There is also the expectation that heat pumps will reduce the amount of time that wood stoves are used.
AGH's Pam Porter with the
Cherokee firewood bank

Many speakers voiced concern about the ongoing cost of heat pumps for homes that had been relying on wood, which is often cheaper. But for the many tribal homes that have electric baseboard heating, or propane heat, heat pumps can lower monthly bills significantly, sometimes to a fraction of the cost.

There are a number of funding opportunities open to tribes and non-profits that could be used for wood stove changeouts, for larger firewood bank projects, and to deploy heat pumps. EPA’s Burn Wise team at the conference urged tribes to explore this funding, including the EPA’s The Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program. Applicants typically apply in stages, starting with $150,000, and then going to $250,000 and finally $350,000. AGH could also partner with one of more firewood banks to apply for this funding.

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