Shifting off of gas in homes

Excerpt, Nilles at, Jan 2019

In terms of urban problems, the next biggest issue after transportation is gas burned in buildings. It’s a problem for both climate change and local air pollution.

Now look at where the problem is concentrated: in big, progressive cities…this is a huge part of the puzzle. It is city-based, and it can be addressed locally.

Though Nilles anticipates a receptive audience for the message, he acknowledges that the scope of the problem is daunting.

“We know that gas is leaking everywhere,” he said. “There are chronic leaks all over the place. And, even if you get rid of non-stove appliances, you still have the same gas infrastructure.”

That all-or-nothing nature of the task at hand comes into sharper focus when you consider the economic aspects.

A recent RMI report modeled a lifecycle savings of electric appliances compared to gas, but that mainly applies to newly constructed all-electric homes, and to gas-to-electric retrofits under some limited circumstances.

In general the economics of retrofitting existing homes work against electrification (break added), according to the report:

…for many existing homes currently heated with natural gas, converting to electric heat pumps for space and water heating will increase customer costs at today’s prices.

Customers with existing gas service face higher up-front costs to retrofit to electric space and water heating than to install new gas devices, and either pay more for energy with electric devices—generally in colder climates—or save too little in energy costs to make up the additional capital cost.

That’s where the top-down part of the strategy kicks in. Local policy has to change.

As described by Nilles, that’s going to take some elbow grease:

This conversation hasn’t even started yet. There are incentives steering us to gas, but there are no incentives to replace, say, a gas hot water heater with electric, even though new electric heat pumps are more efficient.

Nilles anticipates building on the growing interest of electric utilities in clean power. As with Beyond Coal, part of the strategy is to peel away the historic alliances between energy companies and coal producers.

Consumer safety, improved convenience, and the potential for selling new problems would all be at play on that score.

By the same token, Nilles plans to build relationships with appliance manufacturers, rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, and allied unions.

Even with a level playing field, Nilles cautioned that an electricity-centric policy has to consider social impacts:

We’re looking at designing pilots for cities that want to lead, for retrofitting homes quickly and equitably. You don’t want to concentrate a shrinking gas market in low income households.

What Are The Chances For Success?

Winding up the conversation, Nilles pointed out that the natural gas campaign would make no sense without the success of Beyond Coal to leverage it.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t clear how we were going to decarbonize the other sectors, until clean power came on the scene. The cleaner the electricity, the cleaner these other sectors will be.

Speaking of clean, evidence is growing about the health impacts of using natural gas at home, and it’s enough to make your hair curl.

That’s over and above all that stuff about climate change, fracking impacts (including water use as well as water pollution), the occasional high-profile episode of leakage and, of course, explosion.

Expect to hear more — much more — about natural gas in your home from RMI and its allied stakeholders. Nilles has a Climate Breakthrough Project award in his pocket, which will help the campaign get a running start out of the box.