A good argument for eliminating both subsidies... in favor of what works economically. But it's amazing what these new wood stoves can do.


The law favors solar panels, rewarding them with hefty tax credits. But when it comes to helping the planet, wood stoves may be a better bet. [...]

In contrast, all residential oil-burning heaters release carbon that has been locked underground for eons, adding to the net load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Wood isn't like that. A tree pulls carbon out of the air as it grows; when you burn it the CO2 returns to the atmosphere, where other trees can use it in turn. The same thing would happen if the wood were left in the forest to rot. And it's not like we're short on trees. "A lot of forests in the U.S. are vastly overstocked with fuel," says Steve Marshall, assistant director of cooperative forestry at the U.S. Forest Service. Responsible thinning operations can yield plenty of environmentally friendly fuel.

Closer to home, local woodlots and landscaping operations supply much of the wood currently burned in residential stoves. That's quite a contrast with fossil fuels, which need to be extracted from the earth and then transported long distances before being used.

You can debate the physics details, but the disparity in U.S. energy laws is hard to justify. "There is a terrible double standard here," says John Ackerly, the president of the Alliance for Green Heat, a pro-wood-heating advocacy group. "Right now, most energy incentives target fairly expensive systems such as solar and geothermal rather than wood-heat technology, which might make more sense for the average American family."

Of course, for woodstoves to make a positive environmental impact, they need to be a lot cleaner. Unfortunately, most of the 10 million households using wood heat in the United States have dirty, out-of-date technology. An inefficient stove can produce as much as 40 grams of unhealthy particulate matter an hour. It doesn't have to be that way. Many modern wood and pellet stoves produce under 1 gram per hour. That's not far from what many oil burners produce. These clean-burning stoves deserve the same kind of incentives solar panels enjoy.