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Regulating the Oldest Renewable Fuel

By Keith Reid

Keith-Reid1One of our news items in the Dateline section covers the EPA establishing new emission standards for future generations of wood heaters and stoves. The regulations are targeted at new wood stoves, while establishing federal air standards for other new wood heaters including outdoor and indoor wood-fired boilers. So far, they do not apply to existing wood stoves and other wood-burning heaters currently in use in people’s homes. They also do not apply to outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, pizza ovens or chimneys. In addition, EPA did not include new indoor fireplaces.

This is either great or terrible news, depending on whether the reader considers wood heating an opportunity or a competitor. Wood—the pellet fuel kind—is a deliverable fuel, and it is one that some dealers in the industry have managed to integrate into their operations as part of the diversification push. This can be most effective in a commercial environment, as the residential customer might simply pick up bags of pellets for their fueling needs.

According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s 2013 Elemental Analysis of Wood Fuels report: Wood now ranks as the third most common heating fuel, after gas and electricity, for primary and secondary heating fuel use nationally. According to the United States Census, the number of households using wood heat grew by 34% between 2000 and 2010, faster than any other fuel used for residential heating. The northeastern states have seen significantly higher growth in wood used for household heating than the nation at large. New York State experienced an increase of 73% over the 2000 to 2010 period, but wood only accounts for 4% of the State’s total heating fuel needs.

It is estimated by The Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management that residential wood combustion is the largest or one of the largest sources of particulate matter pollution in Northeast locales, ranging from 20% to 75% of ambient PM levels. As EPA noted in setting the regulation: Nationally, residential wood combustion accounts for 44% of total stationary and mobile polycyclic organic matter emissions, which accounts for nearly 25% of all area source air toxics cancer risks and 15% of non-cancer respiratory effects. Residential wood smoke causes many counties in the U.S. to either exceed the EPA’s health-based national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for fine particles or places them on the cusp of exceeding those standards.

But, for all the recent growth noted above, and the apparent health impact as cited by EPA, wood heating still accounts for the primary source of heat in only about 2% percent of homes nationally. It’s no surprise EPA moved to tighten the regulations—it would be shocking if the agency passed up any such opportunity. But the statistical “threat” of wood combustion also would seem to show just how far we’ve already come in reducing emissions from the “low hanging fruit” of conventional petroleum heating and motor fuels, and seemingly coal as well.

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