Helping Families

Wood is the renewable fuel of choice for rural Americans, particularly low and middle income families. State and federal policies that incentivize purchasing new, clean-burning wood stoves will Town in Austriaespecially help these families to affordably heat their homes with an ultra-low carbon fuel.

The United States should urgently address its policies toward wood heat as a way of helping low and middle income families affordably heat their homes. The current framework adopted by almost all states is to prioritize incentives for solar and geothermal, which are unaffordable and have pay back periods too long to be viable for low and middle income families. As a country, we also need to:

  1. Expand stove change-out programs that give larger benefits to low and middle income families
  2. Provide greater federal and state tax credits and incentives for new, clean wood and pellet stoves, putting them within reach of low and middle-income families.
  3. Reduce barriers for families and for wood and pellet distributors to use the heating assistance programs that are funded by LIHEAP.
  4. Provide research and development funds to design ultra-clean, low cost wood and pellet stoves..

It makes little sense that even northern states with a surplus of biomass would neglect the population that has been using a renewable heat source for decades, and instead, give priority to the few who can afford solar, geothermal or wind energy. The Alliance for Green Heat believes that all renewables must be pursued, and that we must, where possible, enable low and middle income Americans to use or keep using renewable energy.

Mitigate Health Problems

The dangers of indoor and outdoor wood smoke are more prevalent in low-income communities, where wood burning is more common, especially using older, more polluting models. Some Native American reservations have very poor indoor air quality as a result of antiquated wood stoves. Wood smoke can aggravate asthma and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Older adults, young children and those suffering from heart or lung diseases face an increased risk of complications from breathing particles found in the smoke from older, inefficient wood stoves. A properly installed EPA-certified wood stove does not release smoke in your house and reduces environmental pollution.

Change-out programs can allow families who may not otherwise be able to afford a new stove the chance to replace an old unit with an EPA-certified unit. To see if there are change-out programs in your area, Click here. If there are no current programs, consider contacting your state or tribal representative and voicing your support for initiating a program in your area. The EPA may have funding in 2010 to expand its funding for local governments to conduct these change-outs.

Burn Efficiently and Save Time and/or Money

If you are purchasing your wood, using a new, clean and efficient stove is important because it uses 20 to 40 percent less wood for the same heat, which can result in hundreds of dollars in savings each year.

The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association has developed a calculator ( to show how various cleaner-burning stoves can save money on heating bills. You can use the cost-effectiveness calculator to compare the cost of heating your home with wood, electricity, natural gas, oil or coal.

For families who harvest from their own wood lots, using less wood saves a lot of time and effort spent splitting and stacking– and saves trees.

Affordability and Payback Periods

Biomass stoves typically cost between $900 and $2,200, making them an affordable investment even for low and middle-income families. The up-front costs of installation are usually $500 to $1,000, lower than many other renewable technologies. Because they are a significant source of heat and can easily displace hundreds of gallons of heating oil or hundreds of therms of natural gas, biomass stoves usually have the shortest pay-back period of any renewable energy technology available for residential use. Here are typical pay back periods, not accounting for federal and state incentives for various technologies:

Wind : 30 years
Solar PV: More than 10 years
Geothermal: 7 to 12 years
Solar hot water: 3 to 7 years
Pellet: 4 - 6 years
Wood: 2 - 5 years

Of course, all these pay back periods depend on many factors. For biomass, it mainly depends on what fuel is being replaced. If its replacing gas, it will take longer to recoup the investment, but if its oil, propane or electric it will be much shorter. A Vermont family would recoup their investment sooner, because their offset fuel costs would be more than in Maryland each year. Variations in fossil fuel prices and tax credits or rebate programs available will also have an impact on the payback periods of various technologies. Tax credits and rebates favor solar, and in some states pay back periods are now under 10 years.


The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a very large program that is little known by those who don’t use or need it. Historically, it has provided $1 billion to$2 billion per year, but that number shot up to $5 billion in the fall of 2008, when energy prices were skyrocketing. Funds are provided to states to help pay fuel costs for low-income households, particularly those that pay a high proportion of household income for primary home energy needs. The fuel provider is paid directly once applicants are accepted to the program. Wood pellets and cord wood are applicable fuel sources for LIHEAP funds.

There is some interest at state levels in trying to switch LIHEAP beneficiaries to pellet heat. This would result in greater economic benefits to the state, as energy purchases would fuel local economies. The Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative is actively working with local agencies that distribute LIHEAP funds and assisting many families to obtain pellet stoves.

In addition, depending on your heating systems, pellets will give you more heat for your LIHEAP dollar per British Thermal Unit (BTU) than oil will. Pellet stoves are also a more efficient way to use zone heating, for instance, in a larger house where you may only need to heat a few rooms at a time.

Even some solar heating has been suggested as a way to provide long-term heat to low-income, instead of just throwing money into more oil and gas year after year. While there is an opportunity to find more affordable, renewable energy solutions to supplement LIHEAP, it will be a long process. For the time being, biomass presents the most obvious choice.

LIHEAP also provides funding to replace a wood stove if it is damaged beyond the scope of safety or reasonable repair efforts. Cracked fireboxes, irreparable doors, CO hazards or other required repairs adding up to over 50 percent of the replacement cost of the stove may be eligible for LIHEAP replacement funds. Click here for more informatinon

There is tremendous potential to start offering families in New England, for example, the option of switching to wood or pellet heat (while retaining their fossil fuel furnaces) especially if wood and pellets continue to be cheaper than oil per BTU. This could make LIHEAP dollars stretch further, incentivize renewable fuel, and help keep LIHEAP dollars growing the local economy instead of Saudi Arabia’s oil economy.

Cutting your own wood from state or federal land.

Most national forests allow people to cut dead or downed wood for their personal use after obtaining a permit- typically about $20 for two to six cords. While we are not aware of any data or research on this, we suspect that this program is mainly used by low and middle-income people who have pick-ups and chain saws and who want to procure all or some of their own fuel supply. Maine and Vermont are two states that have state programs on state land, and charge a small fee to collect five to 10 cords per family. Maine distributed 1,600 cords in one season, suggesting that this is a low cost way for the state to help people secure low cost fuel for their home

Click here for more information about sourcing firewood.

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