Boosting 'clean heat' with better wood stoves

For years, Maryland has been giving generous rebates to families to install solar photovoltaic panels, geothermal systems and wind turbines. That's great, as far as it goes, but the rebates typically go to Maryland's wealthiest residents.

Finally, Maryland has included the little guy of the renewable-energy world: wood and pellet stoves. The Maryland Energy Administration has just started the Clean Burning Wood Stove Grant Program, which could ultimately help thousands of rural Marylanders get a new stove or upgrade from their older, polluting stoves.

Wood is often ignored in renewable energy discussions in favor of the "sexier" alternatives: solar, wind and ethanol. But when we look at the numbers, 85 percent of all renewable energy in Maryland is from wood heating. About 25,000 Maryland families use wood as a primary heating source, and roughly 200,000 as a secondary source. Homeowners all across America have found that heating with wood is one of the most effective ways to reduce fossil fuel use, save on energy bills, and keep their heating dollars local.

The numbers are impressive: One wood stove can reduce up to 1.5 times as much carbon as a solar PV system for one-sixth of the cost. Families can save more than $750 annually on energy bills, and have a price-stable energy supply. For states with electricity conservation programs like Maryland's emPower program, wood stoves can also mean big savings for the state. Wood stoves use little or no electricity, and all energy is produced locally, in the home — no need for big power plants or wasteful and inefficient transmission of energy from power plants to run your furnace.

We can drop the image of grandpa's musty, soot-covered furnace, too: Unlike the polluting stoves of the past, today's wood stoves are far cleaner and higher-efficiency machines. Modern wood and pellet stoves and boilers use 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 Maryland Energy Administration pilot program offers rebates for installations of only the cleanest new wood stoves and boilers. This program is only available for families that heat with the most expensive fuels — oil, propane and electricity. This means rural residents of Maryland, many of whom don't have access to relatively cheap natural gas, will benefit. The programs the Energy Administration has previously focused on — like solar, geothermal and wind – range upward of $15,000 for equipment and installation, far out of the reach of most Maryland residents. The great majority of Marylanders who have installed solar panels since the state started its solar rebate program in 2004 are in suburban, high-income areas. Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, championed the wood stove rebate in Annapolis so the Energy Administration's programs would include rural families who use the most expensive heating fuels.

This new stove rebate program allows more Marylanders to contribute to the state's carbon-reduction goals. Many families in rural Eastern Shore and Western Maryland communities are burdened with high energy bills each month, especially in more remote areas not fitted with natural gas pipelines. Those who switch to wood heat are often tempted to settle for poor, low-efficiency stoves because of cost concerns. This new program provides $500 rebates for stove installations, covering roughly 30 percent of the purchase price of a clean pellet stove. This will help relieve some of the financial burden on cash-strapped communities, making it easier for families using wood heat to afford good-quality, clean stoves for their homes.

The pilot program is funded at $50,000, enough to provide rebates to about 100 households. But if the MEA continues the program, hopefully about 500 could get rebates every year, which would be a great step forward.

Maryland will receive the greatest benefit from employing a range of technologies to meet its energy goals. Solar and wind are valuable components of our state's renewables portfolio, and our programs focusing on clean electricity production have gone a long way in reducing our state's carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. However, it's important to remember that solar and wind are best at producing kilowatt-hours (electricity), and wood stoves are best at producing Btus (heat). Both are needed to address Maryland's energy needs. Just as we've invested in clean electricity programs, we should continue sponsor clean heat programs as well.

Ada Undieh is a Howard County resident and research fellow at the Alliance for Green Heat in Takoma Park. Her email is

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