The movement to replace natural gas with electricity
By Grace Lovins
On July 23, 2019, Berkeley, California, passed a first-of-its kind policy restricting the installation of natural gas hookups in new construction, in an attempt to begin phasing out natural gas infrastructure in buildings. The new ordinance, which took effect in January of 2020, requires developers, builders and building owners to find alternatives to natural gas for appliances like space heaters, water heaters, cooking appliances and dryer units.
Not surprisingly, the public reaction in Berkeley – a liberal northern California city with a world-class university and progressive, free-spirited locals – with the exception of gas lobbyists and gas advocacy groups, was one of strong support for the movement away from fossil fuels. California has been making headlines when it comes to its energy policies and transition to electric within all sectors including transportation, most recently establishing a phase out of gas-powered cars, along with leaf blowers and lawnmowers.
While Berkeley was the first city in the nation to pass a restriction on natural gas, several other cities followed suit inside and outside of California. Currently, there are 77 other municipalities in California, including the bay area of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, that have passed some type of restriction on natural gas hookups, mostly focusing on new construction.
In 2021, Denver, Colorado, passed a restriction on natural gas in buildings leaning more on the ‘phase out’ end of the spectrum. The Denver City Council adopted an ordinance that requires building owners to replace gas-powered space and water heaters with an electric heating system at the end of the heater’s life, making Denver the first city to adopt this type of strategy. The electric movement has traveled from the west, in California, Washington and Colorado, to the east coast, reaching New York City. In December of 2021, New York City became the largest city in the country, and the first large cold-weather city, to begin phasing out natural gas in new construction.
It’s no secret that the United States has long relied heavily on natural gas for numerous uses, and its dependability has led to the creation of an infrastructure that the entire country runs on. In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 23 percent of the world’s natural gas production, making it the world’s largest producer of natural gas. These new citywide natural gas ‘bans’ come as a shock to gas-fuel advocates, who argue that these restrictions are going to have severe consequences on affordability, reliability and consumer choice. “Natural gas has certain qualities that consumers prefer based on usability,” writes Paige Lambermont of the Institute for Energy Research, “and natural gas bans ignore the importance of these consumer preferences.” With that, the big question of this movement away from natural gas and towards electrification is ‘why.’
Natural gas, one of three main types of fossil fuels, contributes to more than 10 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and studies have shown that natural gas use in homes and buildings significantly reduces indoor air quality, raising concern over public health. While concerns over health and safety with persistent natural gas use in residential and commercial buildings are a factor, the key component that seems to be driving this movement towards electrification in most cities is climate change.
Many cities and states across the country have established some type of plan to achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality; in most places the proposed ‘deadline’ being 2050. Seattle, Washington, for instance – one of the many cities with a restriction on natural gas – has the goal of reducing total core greenhouse gas emissions by 58 percent by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. California recently adopted a plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Even some cities in Michigan, such as the progressive municipality of Ann Arbor, have come to establish goals for achieving carbon neutrality. In April 2020, the city of Ann Arbor released their Living Carbon Neutrality Plan, also known as A2Zero Action Plan, which sets the goal of achieving a “community-wide transition to carbon neutrality by 2030.” The A2Zero plan anticipates powering the electrical grid with 100 percent renewable energy, significant improvements in energy efficiency, and electrification of appliances and vehicles by 2030.
Natural gas is predominantly composed of methane, a compound with approximately 20 to 80 times the climate warming potential than carbon dioxide. Not only is natural gas itself a factor in greenhouse gas emissions, but the way natural gas is extracted and produced only adds to the problem and requires significant amounts of energy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that in 2020, methane accounted for 11 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and, per the American Association for the Advancement of Science, natural gas leaks from oil and gas production facilities release enough methane to match the climate impact of coal-fired power plants for 20 years.
Placing restrictions or bans on natural gas allows for the elimination of tens of thousands of individually gas-powered appliances in homes and businesses across the country, in a sense creating a way for pollution to be centralized in order to be controlled. Nick Shroeck, J.D. and professor of environmental law at the University of Detroit Mercy, states that it’s easier to control it from one main source rather than several thousand individual sources like with natural gas appliances or gas-powered vehicles. However, that doesn’t overshadow the need to transition the electric grid to be powered by renewable energy sources, including wind or solar, instead of by fossil fuels like coal.
Not only does a restriction help to control the amount of pollution and where it comes from, but the advantages to public health and safety are enough for some to justify the switch, says Ruth Sawyer, Beyond Coal Organizer for Sierra Club, Washington State. Natural gas used in buildings, whether residential or commercial, emits fumes and toxins that drastically decrease the quality of indoor air. For example, cooking appliances, like stovetops and ovens, release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide, which can be linked to respiratory illnesses and other chronic diseases.
NPR reported in 2021 that the most common pollutants from gas stoves are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide, and the EPA points out that, even at low level exposure, nitrogen dioxide could cause increased risk of respiratory infections and trigger breathing issues for individuals with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Not only can this exposure cause reactions for people already living with these illnesses, but exposure can also increase the likelihood of developing heart problems, diabetes and cancer.
Brett Little, program director of the GreenHome Institute – a non-profit organization based in Grand Rapids aimed at educating and empowering people on the choices they have to advance sustainability – said that, even in coal-dependent states, the organization’s energy models show a direct carbon saving through electrification.
Despite the disadvantages that come from natural gas usage, it’s hard to ignore the convenience and reliability that natural gas appliances offer, mostly because they’ve been a part of the infrastructure for so long, users have grown incredibly comfortable with what natural gas can provide. While limiting the use of fossil fuels has an evident positive impact to the environment, many people and advocates for the fossil fuel industry around the country have argued against restrictions on natural gas. A study conducted by Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, shows that natural gas is still the favored choice over electricity when it comes to cooking appliances. Nearly 73 percent of respondents, who prefer to keep their gas appliances, stated they’ve used both electric and gas, and electric ‘did not work as well as gas alternatives.’ Roughly 30 percent of respondents said they simply just prefer gas.
While to some it continues to make sense to favor gas over electric due to the convenience and access that is already established for gas, certain electric kitchen appliances have been shown to be superior to gas when it comes to energy efficiency and health. Natural gas cooking appliances emit gasses and fumes while in use, and the World Economic Forum states this can lead to serious health concerns, including lower indoor air quality and increased asthma rates if they are not properly vented. Findings published in Environmental Science and Technology show that gas ovens and stove-top burners running in a space with poor ventilation resulted in emissions that surpassed the EPA’s safety standards for outdoor air concentrations of nitrogen dioxide within minutes. Keith Kinch, cofounder and general manager of Bloc Power, writes that children living in homes with gas stoves have an increased risk of approximately 42 percent of developing asthma.
Alternatives to gas-fired appliances like stoves and ovens have been available to consumers since the 1900’s, with the first induction cooktop introduced in 1933. Since then, alternative appliances have come a long way in terms of speed, safety and affordability according to Wirecutter, a consumer review service offered by the New York Times. Stoves can come powered by either gas, electricity, or induction heating. A gas-powered stove has the advantage of being able to control the flame and easily find the desired cooking temperature, whereas electric or induction cooking is known to heat up quicker and have a learning curve for some when it comes to mastering temperature and timing. However, induction cooking, where an electric current travels through a wire under the burner creating a magnetic current through the cooking pan to produce heat, is three times more energy efficient than a gas stove, according to Consumer Reports. Induction is also safer to use than gas, both because it reduces the number of fumes and toxins released into the air and the loss of an open flame. The heat in an induction stove comes from the pot or pan itself, and the removal of the pot or pan from the ‘burner’ will stop the heating. Not to mention, induction is the speediest option for cooking over traditional gas and electric stoves, as noted by both LeafScore and THOR Kitchen.
Additionally, because natural gas infrastructure has powered the country for so long, some states, notably Michigan, are much more dependent on fossil fuels than other states. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that nearly one in 10 homes in Michigan use petroleum products for heating – 90 percent of which use propane. This makes Michigan the largest residential consumer of propane in the country. With Michigan’s heavy reliance on natural gas, a restriction or ban on natural gas doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now, says Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer of the Michigan Environmental Council – but that doesn’t mean the state isn’t ready to begin its first steps in electrifying buildings. She notes that the transition to electrification needs to happen, and happen now, even if the state is not necessarily in a place to eliminate gas from whole communities.
The Michigan Public Service Commission reports that more than 75 percent of Michigan households rely on natural gas as a primary heating source, and roughly 320,000 homes still rely on propane as a primary heating source. The EIA said that nearly one-third of the state’s energy needs come from reliance on petroleum products. Given this dependence, is eliminating natural gas really the best option for Michigan, and other states with a similar reliance, to focus on reducing emissions?
Chris Kobus, director of Engineering and Energy Education and founder of the Clean Energy Research Institute at Oakland University, believes the restrictions on natural gas aren’t effective in addressing the real issue with energy consumption: supply and demand.
“The entire planet runs primarily on fossil fuels, and natural gas, out of the three [coal, oil and natural gas], is by far the cleanest. … Restricting natural gas, what that’s going to do is put more pressure on the electric grid because you have to replace it with something,” Kobus said. “These restrictions, what they do is they’re limiting the supply of something, not limiting demand, but people are going to get their energy somewhere. If it’s not natural gas, which is the cleanest of the three fossil fuels, it’s going to come from somewhere else, and I guarantee you that the majority of it is going to come from coal.”
Kobus also noted that, while natural gas does release methane, which contributes to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the methane from natural gas is a tiny trace gas of what makes up what’s in the atmosphere. According to the American Gas Association, methane emissions from natural gas systems, like heating systems, accounts for 2.7 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S.
Opponents of this movement have also called into question the reliability of this transition, especially since the dependence on electric energy is going to place a heavier burden on the grid. In areas like California, the reliability of the electric grid is tested almost daily and increasingly is facing challenges through extensive demand and weather conditions. The state is experiencing frequent blackouts and the growing intensity of wildfires have caused concerns over power lines and general access to electricity, as reported by Bloomberg.
Not only is the reliability of electric infrastructure a major concern to some advocates, many question this transition’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially given the electric grid primarily operates off the burning of fossil fuels – such as coal. That’s where the transition to electric infrastructure needs to be paired with a major shift to renewable energy sources like wind, hydropower, solar or nuclear, says Todd Allen, Glenn F. and Gladys H. Knoll Department Chair of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan.
Allen, a member of the University of Michigan’s Fastest Path to Zero team, explained that the path to zero emissions or net neutrality will look different for every community based on local energy resources and community values. However, a drive to zero carbon systems will most likely require a combination of all renewable energy sources, considering not all renewable resources are applicable to every part of the country.
Although the grid is still powered by fossil fuels, studies show that electrification actually contributes less to overall greenhouse gas emissions than consistently using natural gas, says Resources for the Future. Further, Jessica Tristch, building electrification campaign director at Sierra Club, noted that electric energy isn’t necessarily less affordable than natural gas, which many opposed to this transition have argued.
“Across the country, it’s nearly always less expensive, right now, to build homes with all-electric construction than with new fossil fuels,” said Tristch. According to a study conducted by RMI, in residential areas in Columbus, Ohio, Boston, Mississippi, Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis, building electrification can save between $1,000 to $6,000 in net present costs, and roughly 15 to 50 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a 15-year period.
Local governments and environmental groups aren’t the only bodies aiming to make this transition happen, nor hoping to make it easier for the public. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden this August, will invest $370 billion in the form of spending and tax credits for “low-emission forms of energy” to fight climate change – one of the country’s biggest investments to fight climate change. The bill itself is aimed at helping the United States cut greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Given the incentives, rebates and other forms of assistance that are going to be provided through the Inflation Reduction Act, states will potentially have an easier time transitioning away from natural gas to meet their established climate goals.
Michigan is also on par with these states when it comes to setting a climate emissions goal and devising a plan of action. In 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer directed the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to develop an action plan, to be known as the MI Healthy Climate Plan, for the state “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition toward economy-wide carbon neutrality.” The MI Healthy Climate Plan was finalized in April of this year and lays out Michigan’s emission reduction goals as a 52 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, ultimately achieving economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.
Although Michigan has established a plan to reach net neutrality, as a state it may not be in the best position to completely eliminate natural gas just yet, but with new technology available, Michigan is ready and able to begin electrifying buildings, according to University of Michigan's Todd Allen.
There has been a push by