Did you know that wood energy has an enormous potential to displace fossil fuels?
Updated: May 23, 2022
Meet John Ackerly. Founder & President of the Alliance for Great Heat
For John Ackerly, founder and president of Alliance for Green Heat, wood energy is all about renewable resources and local economies. HIs nonprofit promotes cleaner and more efficient residential wood and pellet heating to reduce fossil fuel heating.
The Takoma Park resident grew up in the New England area, spending a lot of time in New Hampshire where he fell in love with wood stoves. “I have no idea why I got obsessed with wood stoves,” Ackerly confesses. He would often stop at his local hardware store down the road when he was a teenager just to look at the stoves. Virtually every house had a wood stove, but some cooked with wood and heated their water with wood.
“It occurred to me that there was a class of mostly rural people in America that had used little fossil fuel, while the rest of our families went from coal to oil to gas or electricity as fast as we could. For generations millions of households relied on a local, sustainable renewable, and they still were. “That really struck me,” he added. “Natural mortality of trees produces an enormous quantity of fuel every year, but the challenge is reducing the smoke, especially in towns and suburbs,” he said.
Ackerly ended up in law school and had an exciting career working in civil rights. It wasn’t until he was ready to change careers at the age of 50 when he realized his love for wood heating could be a profession. Ackerly approached friends and colleagues at environmental organizations in DC that focused on renewable energy, arguing that wood heat was the most widespread residential renewable and still had enormous potential to replace fossil fuel. “They didn’t exactly laugh at me, but I got a lot of blank stares” he says.
That’s when Ackerly decided to start his own organization, based on models of non-profit advocacy groups he had led. Eleven years later, the Alliance for Green Heat is going strong, albeit on a modest budget.
Ackerly doesn’t have a technical background, but he knew non-profit management, how to navigate federal agencies, educate members of Congress and their staff and to network among key stakeholders.
Ackerly points out that some big environmental groups seem to be getting “more wary about biomass,” but at the state and regional level there are a lot of groups that understand the differences between local heating and industrial scale biomass to electricity. Part of helping overcome this wariness lies appreciating how local and organic the firewood sector is, and how modern technology is cleaning up emissions. “As they say, ‘it’s not your grandfathers’ stove’”, Ackerly quipped. He also explained another emerging trend, increasing adopted in European policy, is understanding how modern wood and pellet heat complement the electrification movement in the short and mid-term. Grids need relief from winter peak loads and residential and institutional biomass heat provides that, says Ackerly.
The biggest advancement in small scale wood heat energy technology happened 30 years ago with the pellet stove, Ackerly says. Another big advancement was EPA stove emission regulation issued in 1988. The whole sector had to up their game, as Ackerly puts it, and figure out a cleaner way to burn.
Though pellet stove technology was invented here in North America, both to make the stoves and the pellets, “it has almost stagnated here, but Europe has taken the technology and run with it,” notes Ackerly. “They sell more pellet stoves every year in Italy than we do in all of North America,” he says, citing the very robust markets in other European countries like Germany, France, and Austria. When referring to the U.S. market, Ackerly laments that “we sell as few as 30,000-40,000 across the whole country, though 2021 will be a banner year and those figures could easily double.”
He knows that the Alliance can fill a niche because they’re not industry or an air quality organization, allowing for “a really big space” to work between all these interests. “We always say that residential wood and pellet heating can be a core part of our renewable energy strategy if its managed well,” Ackerly says.
Until more renewables are on our nation’s grid, the Alliance founder cites the urgent need to integrate modern wood and pellet heating “in a strategic way, which involves institutional pellet boilers and small district heat systems.” However, Ackerly says market forces are going to drive a lot of this. “How cheap can we ultimately get renewable electricity to be, and how cheap will fossil fuel be in the meantime, he asked.”
He the stove rebate program available in Maryland as a positive example to help households get modern, professionally installed appliances, which can easily reduce fossil heating fuel by 50 – 80% in most homes. Ackerly adds that the amazing thing about Maryland is 90% of the people who take the rebate buy a pellet stove.
“One thing I like about burning pellets is I can call up the company and ask them where the wood is from. What percentage from sawdust, from chips, from round wood? That transparency in the supply chain is possible because it’s a local product you can know where it comes from,” he says. Ackerly contrasts that with fossil fuels, “which have long supply chains, and faceless corporations who take your money and use it to maintain the climate change denial lobby.”
Wood is abundant in North America and is the primary heating fuel for 2% of the population and a secondary fuel for another 8% of homes, according to the Census Bureau. We think about twice as many homes could be heated with wood and pellets, just based on natural mortality, residues and wood disposed of in landfills. Ackerly cites the EPA documentation of 8 million tons of wood that gets put into landfills every year.
Ackerly is proud of his organization’s role in engaging the Department of Energy in a wood stove design challenge and a DOE program that provides $5 million every year for R&D to stove manufacturers. “Before that, the DOE’s biomass program was all about liquid fuels for transportation,” he said.
Ackerly practices what he preaches, with solar panels for electricity and a pellet stove running at home 24/7 for heat, his home uses little gas or electricity from the grid. It's simple he says, “wood and pellets are winners for renewable heating.”
Photo Credit: EDWIN REMSBERG PHOTOGRAPHS
Project Support: RURAL MARYLAND COUNCIL
LINKS TO LEARN MORE:
Alliance for Green Heat-
Pellet Stove Rebate Program-
Virtual Workshop- Advances in Wood Heater Design & Technology
Future Potential for Woody Biomass Energy in Maryland
Maryland's Forests- Great for the Environment and the Economy-