How Natural Gas Became The Dirty Fuel, At Least In Your Home
Not long ago natural gas – the fuel that probably gave you your hot shower this morning – was hailed as the clean “bridge fuel,” the one that would create a safe transition for society from yesterday’s dirtier home fuels, coal and oil, to a fully renewable future.
But now the gold standard for a home, from a climate-change perspective, is to go all electric, some home energy efficiency experts say. No gas meter.
“Right now people understand the benefit of having an electric vehicle, and soon I think they will also understand the benefits of having all-electric homes,” said Rachel Golden, a senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club.
Consider these current realities: The pipes that deliver natural gas to your home are now understood to be leaking significant amounts of climate-warming gas. Natural gas is mostly methane, a climate super polluter. It’s 84 times worse than carbon dioxide at keeping heat close to the Earth in the short term.
One energy efficiency contractor, Dan Thomsen, estimated he finds natural gas leaks at a quarter of the homes he tests. The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund has developed significant expertise in methane through academic partnerships. It has found gas leaking in numerous places and has begun mapping it.
Second, the electricity that runs along transmission wires to your home comes from ever cleaner sources, including wind and solar. In the San Diego Gas & Electric coverage area, 43 percent of electricity came from clean sources in 2016. Each year, electricity is a cleaner fuel than it was the year before.
Most of the climate-harming carbon dioxide emissions you generate at home come from your hot water water and furnace – not from the stove – so no need to panic yet about losing those beloved gas burners. Water heating and space heating make up more than 80 percent of household emissions and cooking less than 10 percent.
So the focus now is on more efficient water and space heaters. “You can now get a much more energy efficient electric space heater or water heater than a conventional gas heater,” Golden said.
What she is referring to is something you will probably soon hear more about: the heat pump. A heat pump works for both heating and, if you want it, air conditioning, by reversing its process depending on need. It runs on electricity.
The best time to consider one may be when you think about replacing your furnace and are contemplating air conditioning. That is an increasingly common scenario for Southern Californians as temperatures rise. General contractor Dan Thomsen runs Building Doctors, a Los Angeles company that tests homes and recommends cost and energy-efficient changes for comfort. He recently had his own gas meter removed. He recommends customers rethink heating their homes with gas.
“You’re burning natural gas in a metal box,” Thomsen said about home heating, calling it archaic. “There is off-gassing that’s from it. There is carbon monoxide that is from it. There are toxins that come with burning gas.”
Thomsen, like several people interviewed, recommended heat pumps. He is sure the future is electrification of homes. Mauzy Heating Air & Solar, a vendor and installer in San Diego, also called heat pumps very efficient. But the company has seen no uptick in sales. It recommends them for people who have solar systems on their roofs, because that electricity is paid for.
Sean Armstrong of Redwood Energy, which specializes in all-electric construction, recommends heat pumps for many more situations than just solar homes. He installs them in affordable apartment buildings across California.
“A refrigerator uses more electricity for heating and cooling than a heat pump in an apartment,” Armstrong said.
Heat pump technology also works on hot water heaters. But if you want to switch to one, you may have trouble getting a rebate from your utility. State rules currently require a complicated test, basically a set of questions, if you are switching from gas to electric or vice versa. The rule was originally intended to keep utility companies from poaching each other’s customers by offering rebates as incentives to switch fuels.
California utility regulators are considering whether that government policy is outdated and should be reexamined.
This rule drives some forward-looking contractors crazy.
“Fuel switching is a big issue in our state, because there are people who want to do what is right for them, right for their lifestyle. They don’t want to pollute. They don’t want to use natural gas,” Thomsen said.
The main defender of the rule may be the gas-only utility Southern California Gas. SoCalGas has more than 21 million gas customers and is the provider from Visalia to the Mexican border in Imperial County. Like San Diego Gas & Electric, it is a subsidiary of Sempra Energy.
“SoCalGas has long supported energy efficiency programs that help our customers save energy, save money and reduce emissions,“ the company’s Chris Gilbride said in a statement.
Natural gas keeps energy affordable across California, gas companies say. Paying utility bills is a major concern for many residents. Many customers cannot afford to risk higher bills. One-third of SoCalGas customers currently need assistance paying their bills.
At Green Energy EPC, a mainly solar company in San Diego, Sam Syed said it’s probably best for gas customers to make no change. “Gas is cheaper so we usually recommend they stay with that,” he said. Syed said customers have not complained about being denied rebates when they wanted to switch fuels.
SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao agreed that the disincentive to switch is not a problem. Most customers swap out gas appliances for gas appliances, and electric for electric, she said.
Switching from gas to electricity can also sometimes mean having to increase electrical service to your circuit breaker box, another cost, though not always. Another consideration that favors gas is that your bill is the same no matter what time of day you use it. Increasingly, electricity customers are billed extra for using power at the times when most people need it – after school and work.
Several people said it is impossible to generalize about which fuel is less expensive. It depends on location, the number of people in your home and their living habits. Armstrong said new, electric space heating is often a little less expensive than gas and an electric water heater a little more.