EPA’s new rules for residential heaters generating heat

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new rules raising standards for residential firewood heaters are generating heat, but science, green energy advocates, and common sense alike are on the EPA’s side. Wood heat is green – it should also be clean.

Approximately 2.5 million American homes now rely primarily on the age-old practice of burning wood to heat their homes in winter, making it a rapidly-growing source of renewable energy, which is powering homes, employing small businesses and self-employed artisans, and connecting Americans to their environment. It’s a practice that’s persisted in the northern Plains and Pacific, but is growing rapidly in the Northeast as well. Residential wood heaters are largely built and installed by small businesses or individual artisans. And, unlike so many things we only wish would grow on trees, wood is trees. How much more renewable and green can you get?

There’s only one problem – where there’s fire, there’s smoke. As it turns out, the many tiny particles in wood smoke can, in large enough amounts, cause all kinds of problems, from smog to acid rain. New research shows these tiny particles – called “particulate matter” by the experts – are worse for people than previously thought, leading to higher rates of heart attacks and strokes as it builds up in the air. The State of Washington estimates that particulate matter causes 1,100 deaths every year.

While America is dealing with this kind of pollution better than other countries, it’s still a problem, and one that, believe it or not, individual homes burning wood contribute to in a big way – more than 13 percent of all particulate matter emissions in the country and rising, according to the EPA. Which means increasing numbers of Americans are burning a source of potentially deadly toxins and chemicals, attacking everything from our health to our pets and our forests to our cars.

That’s why the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the power and responsibility to make rules limiting pollution from wood heaters. EPA’s proposal would raise standards on those stoves already covered by existing rules; they would also expand those regulations to cover devices that have become more common since the EPA last updated their rules 25 years ago.

The proposed regulations have encountered complaints from individuals and businesses who fear that the tighter rules will raise prices and even force some Americans to adopt dirtier sources of energy. They’re certainly not the first Americans to wish the EPA would ‘make like a tree and leave.’

The EPA is accepting comments on the proposed regulations through May 5 – you can submit one yourself at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OAR-2009-0734-0001 - and many organizations and individuals are sharing their concerns. While their concerns are not groundless, they are definitely overstated – the new rules won’t affect the heaters people already own, and the tightest standards won’t go into effect for five years, giving businesses and consumers plenty of time to adjust. Indeed, many devices on the markets already meet EPA’s standards. And while I’m not going out on a limb by saying that nobody likes red tape, the EPA is also proposing new, more efficient ways to get heaters certified with much less paperwork.

Most importantly, these regulations would save hundreds of lives and reduce smog and acid rain to boot, according to EPA’s estimates. And as wood becomes more popular as a source of green, renewable heat, it only becomes more important to take strong measures to limit the negative side of an otherwise-positive trend.

That’s why John Ackerly, President of the Alliance of Green Heat - a leading advocate for burning wood as an alternative to fossil fuels - says: “The future of wood and pellet heating in America depends on the technology becoming cleaner and more efficient. Otherwise, there will be more and more efforts to restrict wood heating and to keep it out of renewable energy incentive programs.”

Amazingly, in this era of smartphones, drones and self-driving cars, America is increasingly going back to its roots and warming its homes the old-fashioned way. Burning wood can be an important part of our clean energy future – but only if it’s green and clean. EPA’s new rules are planting the seeds of that future.

Bentovim is a graduate student at the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. He will graduate with a Master of Public Policy in Program Evaluation and Analysis in May 2014.

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