Opponents of natural gas stoves are vociferous. “Kill your gas stove” is the headline on a 2020 article in the Atlantic. “It’s bad for you, and the environment.” Not so fast, counters the New York Times in their headline: “Why you don’t need to ditch your gas stove (yet).”
What are the dangers to the environment of powering your home with natural gas? And what about health effects? And given what we have learned, what should you do? Pull money out your child’s college tuition fund and buy an electric stove? Or should you prioritize a new furnace? And what is all this about heat pumps?
I want to dig into the issues, but first let’s go back in time to the days before anyone even had a choice, much less a preference, between natural gas and electricity. In fact, let’s witness the miracle of electrification through the eyes of my grandmother, Mildred Bowles.
Born in 1906, my grandmother lived on a watermelon farm in Missouri with her parents, four brothers, and four sisters. Like most rural families at the time, they had no electric power. When she was a child, one of Mildred’s chores was to check the family’s game traps every morning before school. She used to tell me that she hated that chore because her clothes would get dirty while she was tramping around in the bushes. It was embarrassing to wear dirty clothes to school. But in those days of washing by hand (not to mention pumping water by hand too), she had to wear the same dress, clean or not, for at least a week.
Life took a turn for the better in the 1920s, when her family moved to Northern California where electricity was already available in most homes. She met and married my grandfather and they settled in Sacramento. My grandparents’ running water, lights, and a radio were conveniences unavailable to her friends and neighbors back in Missouri.
No wonder Mildred was a steadfast proponent of all that modernity had to offer! In the 1950s, cooking newly invented convenience foods on her electric range was part of the fun. She was an early adopter of Jiffy Pop, which was invented in 1958. Jiffy Pop ads claimed it was “as fun to make as it is to eat.” It was all part of happy suburban family life.
Electricity No Longer So Fun
“A party without cake is
really just a meeting.”
During the late 1960s and 1970s, however, the conformist, sexist, and racist values of the 1950s “ideal” life came under scrutiny, especially in the Bay Area. Images of a suburban woman in pearls and high heels smiling over her stovetop were beginning to disappear.
From another angle, some people criticized the 1950s lifestyle as insufficiently sophisticated. Learning to make Crêpes Suzette from Julia Child became more interesting than making Jiffy Pop. Gas stoves, in particular, became — and continue to be — “a coveted kitchen symbol of wealth, discernment, and status.”
Marketing by the natural gas industry (Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club)
During these decades, natural gas became widely appreciated as an inexpensive source of “clean energy” for powering stoves, furnaces, and water heaters. The share of gas stoves, for instance, in newly constructed single-family homes climbed from below 30 percent in the 1970s to around 50 percent in 2019.
Electric appliances were losing traction as a provider of happiness, a process accelerated by strenuous efforts
by the gas industry. I beg you to watch a few minutes of this hilariously awful “rap
” (“Cooking with Gas”) developed by the gas industry in the late 80s.
But the times they are a-changin’ (again). Realization of the enormous contribution of natural gas to climate change and its toxicity to humans has occasioned a return to electricity. Let’s look at the issues.
Natural Gas Extraction
Like oil and coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel and is non-renewable. A naturally occurring mixture of methane and other gases (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or helium), it is formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth over millions of years.
|Methane and carbon dioxide are by far the dominant drivers of global warming
Flaring of unwanted natural gas
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Upon escaping into the atmosphere, greenhouse gases such as methane act as a blanket insulating the Earth, absorbing energy and slowing the rate at which heat leaves the planet.
Methane is released unintentionally in the form of leaks during the extraction, transportation, and storage processes. It is also released intentionally by simply allowing unwanted methane gas to enter the atmosphere during the extraction of coal and crude oil (“venting”) or by burning it (“flaring”).
Natural Gas in Your Home
|What’s for breakfast? Eggs, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides…oh, and particulate matter (Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club)
According to the Sierra Club
, “The energy used in buildings is the largest source of climate pollution in the world, and here in California, buildings are second only to transportation as the leading source of climate pollution. The bulk of these emissions come from burning fossil fuels such as natural gas and propane to heat our homes and buildings. Gas has overtaken coal as the largest source of climate pollution in the U.S., and gas is now the primary driver of emissions growth worldwide.”
Burning natural gas in homes releases dangerous toxins including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ultrafine particles. In many homes, this level of air pollution would be illegal if measured outside.
Health risks from inhaling the fumes released by natural gas stoves include asthma, allergies, respiratory disease, and heart disease. Children are particularly at risk; children living in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to have asthma than who are not exposed to natural gas in this way.
And as the California Air Resources Board points out, people spend 87% of their time indoors, so it is particularly important to consider the effects of indoor pollution.
I am convinced to go electric! But I am overwhelmed! What do I do next?
IMPACT OF MCE TO DATE: IMPRESSIVE!!
700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions eliminated since 2010
$68 million+ saved by customers
49 MW new renewable projects built locally
5,000 California jobs supported
You can do it!
Step 1: Sign up for MCE so your electricity is generated from clean renewable sources like wind and solar instead of natural gas, coal, and nuclear.
In many parts of the Bay Area, PG&E customers can opt for MCE, a public, not-for-profit electricity provider that gives them the choice of having 60% or 100% of their electricity supplied from clean, renewable sources (i.e., solar and wind).
Opting for 100% renewable energy is less expensive than the conventional PG&E service, which is based 29% on renewable resources.
It's easy to make the switch. PG&E continues to provide all gas services, electric delivery, billing, and power line maintenance. To get started with MCE give them a call or go to their website. Step 2: Replace gas appliances with electric alternatives
Unless you have a peculiar love of appliances, it may not sound very fun to go through the transition to electric furnaces and water heaters. But I am here to tell you that you do not have to walk this path alone.
Enter BayREN! Not the most euphonious of names, but a great organization.The Bay Area Regional Energy Network (BayREN) is a coalition of nine counties with the goal of promoting resource efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases at the regional level.
Contact BayREN and speak with a Home Energy Advisor to learn about rebates for switching to electric appliances, get advice on options, and get a referral for a certified contractor. Call them at (866) 878-6008 or contacting them via their website.
For an even more thorough assessment, set up an appointment with a Home Energy Score Assessor for a home inspection walk-through. The assessor will make recommendations on how to improve your home’s energy efficiency.
Then contact one of the certified contractors to do the installation and submit the rebate paperwork for you. Rebates range from $1,000 (for a heat pump water heater) to $300 (for an induction cookstove).
One Crazy Idea: Get a Heat Pump
By far the biggest proportion of home energy goes to air and water heating. To get the biggest bang for your buck, consider getting an integrated heat pump that works for indoor air and water. To warm up your home, it pulls whatever heat it can get from outside and transfers it indoors. To cool down the air indoors, it sucks heat out of the indoor air and releases it outdoors. In addition to heating and cooling indoors, they can heat water for homes or swimming pools, and they can heat the air used in dryers. When the heat pump is doing all of this, it is a very efficient use of electricity.
Moving Forward with New Buildings
Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club
While switching out existing gas appliances for electric ones is effective and important, the fastest way to remove the threat of methane and carbon dioxide is to ban — or reduce — the use of natural gas in new buildings. The Sierra Club reports that 50 cities and counties in California have committed to such a reduction. And the California Energy Commission recently passed a building code that encourages the use of electric heat pumps for space and water heating in new construction.
Coming Full Circle
My grandmother never switched to a gas stove, and she probably thought anyone who did so was “kinda screwy” (her epithet of choice). She experienced electrification as an all-out win and it is increasingly clear that she was right. Electric stoves (or induction stoves, their spiffed-up cousins) along with electric furnaces and water heaters have significant power to protect the planet as well as our health. So it is up to us consumers to bend the curve in the right direction.
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! Special thanks to Guy Ashcraft for helping me make sense of electricity, and to Annette and Jan Holloway for sharing their memories of Mildred Bowles Holloway.