There’s a major renewable energy technology that neither presidential candidate is talking about, and it happens to be the one most popular with voters: The wood-burning stove. And though I believe the future of this country lies in aggressively producing more renewable energy, any strategy here should include modern wood stoves, not exclude them.
Wood stoves won’t become talking points for President Obama or Mitt Romney anytime soon. Unfortunately, they are still widely associated with the smoky, inefficient units built in the 1970s and 80s following the Arab oil embargo. But they continue to be a renewable energy mainstay in America and have huge potential.
Around 10 million American households heat their homes with wood. No other renewable energy is as relevant to voters in America’s rural areas; in New England, for example, half of all rural homes rely on wood stoves. Most of the swing states—Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada—are among the highest per-capita users of wood heat in the nation. In these states, the electorate cares deeply about heating costs.
But all this remains an energy sleeper issue in the upcoming election that refuses to wake up—even though wood or pellet stove users outnumber solar PV panel owners 20-to-1.
Wood and pellet stoves are barely an afterthought to the policy and opinion makers despite doing most of the work within the renewable energy movement. Instead, the imagery of solar panels and wind turbines has become inexorably tied to renewable energy. Many even associate electric cars and hybrids with renewable energy, even though they are only tangentially related.
Solar panels do offer several advantages over wood stoves: They don’t smoke, and you don’t have to load them with wood every four to eight hours. But a wood stove makes about the same amount of energy as a set of solar PV panels. In fact, the amount of renewable energy that wood stoves produce may surprise many people. If we as a nation want to achieve energy independence, we ignore the potential of these stoves at our peril.
First, the nation’s wood and pellet stoves produce three times more residential renewable energy than all the other renewables—solar PV, solar thermal, geothermal, and wind—combined. Second, these stoves produce more heat nationally than propane and nearly as much as oil. Third, wood heat is a fraction of the cost of oil, propane, and other renewable technologies. (All this data comes from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.)
There are arguments that wood stoves aren’t yet clean enough to be considered a top-shelf clean energy source, but modern stoves and boilers employ advanced emission-reduction designs, including catalytic combustors found in cars. Some are even starting to use Lambda sensors and high-speed microprocessors—also used in cars—to optimize the oxygen/fuel ratio for maximum efficiency and minimal emissions.
The EPA is developing stricter emission and efficiency standards for wood and pellet stoves, which will help make them more attractive to not only the renewable energy community but also the general public. And, like with many other home appliances, more efficient stoves will help save American families hundreds of millions in energy costs. They’ll also reduce their individual carbon footprints.
For a home in the mid-Atlantic, replacing an oil-fired heating system with a new $2,000 wood or pellet stove can slash its carbon output by five tons. In colder New England, that reduction could double. As a comparison, a typical $20,000 set of solar panels might achieve a five ton reduction, but it could never do 10.
I think that federal and state governments should provide financial incentives to households using renewable energy, and not just to families who install solar but also those who use the cleanest and most efficient wood stoves. Rebates and tax credits for solar PV mainly go to wealthier families who often live in larger homes and have no trouble paying the utility bills. Similar rebates for using modern wood stoves would help many families who are struggling to pay for their utilities—particularly during winter.
Maryland recently started an innovative pilot program that helps moderate its generous rebates to wealthy families who want solar. The state now provides a modest rebate to families heating their homes with modern, efficient wood stoves who would otherwise be using more expensive and carbon-intensive fuels. This means households who heat with oil, propane, and electricity are eligible—and that directs more funding to the rural communities that need it most.
I hope the solar industry will continue to grow in the coming years, but we need to remember that while solar is best at making kilowatts (electricity), stoves are better at making Btus (heat). Solar panels and wood stoves complement one another perfectly and can serve as energy bridges between rural and urban areas.
John Ackerly is the President of the Alliance for Green Heat, a non-profit advocacy organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland. Popular Mechanics is a partner in the Wood Stove Design Challenge, which will culminate in a Wood Stove Decathlon in 2013. For more information, please visit http://www.forgreenheat.org.