Solar Generation May Sideline Biomass Heating

[Note: this article is written by long-time wood stove cheerleader, John Ackerly.  It's nice to see him admitting that his wood-burning dreams are about to be dashed by solar power.  Energy Justice does not support combustion sources for heating, since non-burn alternatives exist, and since there are many pollution and health problems relating to wood stoves.]

- John Ackerly, May 1, 2015, Biomass Magazine

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"471","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"302","style":"width: 333px; height: 210px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Industrytap.com","width":"480"}}]]Most of us have looked at the explosive growth of solar photovoltaic systems as just a parallel and complementary renewable energy technology.  Solar panels make kilowatts while wood and pellet stoves make Btus, right?  Wrong.

To stay relevant, the biomass heating industry needs to keep abreast of rapid advances in the solar industry. We also need to think of ways to integrate our technology with other renewables, and we need to explore how that integration can happen right away, because renewable energy policy decisions being made now will impact our industry in coming decades.

The solar industry has a vision, ambition and plan for rapid expansion that is largely absent in the wood and pellet stove community.  Pathways for rapid expansion of pellet technologies are being developed in Europe, but not in the U.S.  While solar advocates are focused on a wide range of financing options, regulatory frameworks, R&D, utility partnerships, the wood and pellet stove industry seems to put more effort into trying to maintain the status quo and fight against regulations. 

Many pellet stoves and boilers are now clean and efficient enough to be part of the mainstream renewable energy revolution.  But they remain an afterthought in most state and federal programs.  Part of the problem is that we are not integrated into the solar community, which is making more and more breakthroughs in many circles.  Perhaps the most important breakthroughs are in the imaginations of the general public.

A recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank for energy policy, found that solar will become economic for nearly all customers very soon, and that solar-plus-battery systems will follow suit within the next 10 to 15 years.   It’s battery technology that may ultimately pose the greatest disruptive threat for utilities, signaling what may be a complete breakdown of the traditional centralized power and grid model.

A first step for the industry is to start integrating batteries that would enable pellet stoves to run for at least 12 to 24 hours during a power outage.  Integrating a battery pack seamlessly into a pellet stove, without significantly raising the purchase price, would give that manufacturer a big edge on the market.  It would also help the solar industry realize pellet stoves requiring low amounts of electricity have the potential to operate well even in off-grid homes. 

Wood and pellet stoves and boilers can also easily generate small amounts of electricity, enough to recharge phones and computers and run a few lights.  This technology has been out there for years, but no stove or boiler company has taken advantage of it.  Again, the benefit is not just to provide the consumer with a groundbreaking application for stoves, but to spark the imagination of the general public that biomass heaters are an exciting part of the renewable energy movement.

Ironically, the wood and pellet stove industry has deployment numbers that the solar industry could only envy for many years.  Ten million homes in America have wood and pellet stoves, whereas solar PV may just be crossing the 1 million mark soon. As their star becomes brighter, ours is in danger of becoming dimmer. Public opinion is shifting, and policies and incentives are shifting along with it. 

As solar systems become more efficient and more robust, they can also start taking on some of the heat load of homes, especially as cold climate heat pumps become more efficient and affordable.  Incentive programs in the Northeast are already starting to push heat pumps much more than pellet stoves.  At the same time, we are seeing more and more urban areas restrict the use of wood stoves due to air quality concerns.

If the environmental community finds itself fighting against the wood stove industry more than they are partnering with it, we may lose momentum. The wood and pellet stove industry should make sure that its lawsuit against the EPA’s new regulations is not seen as a fight for the status quo. Maintaining the status quo for wood and pellet heaters is ultimately the worst thing that could happen, because we need to keep apace of the rapid changes in the residential distributed renewable energy sector. That means being part of discussions on creative financing mechanisms, integration with solar and geothermal systems and within the green building and home performance communities.  Mounting a major lawsuit against the EPA may just draw precious resources away from the real opportunities before us.