It all began in California. In 2019, the city of Berkeley enacted the first city-wide ban on new natural gas hookups in residential buildings. The aim was to reduce emissions and accelerate the energy transition. Now, more cities are thinking of doing the same thing.
State authorities, however, are not having it.
Several major cities, including Denver, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, have either followed in Berkeley's footsteps or have plans in place to do it, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. The governments of the states they are in, in turn, have struck back with legislation banning such prohibitions.
For the proponents of gas bans, the benefits are clear, or rather, the benefit: lower emissions. For the opponents, there are too many disadvantages, from the cost of switching a house from gas to electricity to the effect of more all-electric households on the grid.
"The intermittent nature of renewable sources like solar and wind necessitates another form of energy when the sun isn't shining, and the wind isn't blowing," wrote the chief executive of the American Public Gas Association in an article commenting on the bans for Utility Dive.
"Eliminating the direct use of natural gas in homes and businesses would simply shift the use of natural gas from inside the home to powering an already overburdened electric grid through natural gas-fired power plants — if we're lucky — and in some cases, coal-powered plants," Dave Shryver also said.
Indeed, this is perhaps the fundamental problem with the all-electric switch: the cost. It is a basic rule that any raw material—or a commodity such as natural gas—is cheaper than whatever is produced from it, in this case, electricity. And while the United States administration and some state governments have ambitious plans for going all-renewable, this stage of development of their electricity systems is still in the future.
The whole idea of making households and businesses all-electric to reduce carbon dioxide emissions could be seen as a bit of an exaggeration. According to Environmental Protection Agency data cited by The Wall Street Journal, households and businesses account for some 13 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions. This is not exactly a huge number especially compared to transportation and the power utility sector, each of which produce several times more emissions.
From climate activists' perspective, however, 13 percent is a high enough number to prompt action and, according to some cities, this action should include all households, not just newbuilds. This is where things get more expensive.
A study by San Francisco cited by The WSJ says that retrofitting all households currently using gas for heating and cooking to become all-electric would cost between $3.4 billion and $5.9 billion. Someone would need to shoulder this cost, and it will not be just the city authorities only—not with all other plans environmentally conscious cities have for their energy consumption. All-electric cooking equipment is also costlier than gas stoves and, not to put too fine a point on it, often slower. Finally, electricity from renewable sources is more expensive than the alternatives—a fact many in California are being reminded of every month with their bills. These facts have prompted restaurant associations to speak out against the all-electric plans.
But the cost of the all-electric shift is only one of its problems. The other is the grid. For all their emission-related advantages, wind and solar cannot be trusted to provide a reliable constant flow of electricity that is readily available during times of peak consumption. And with an all-electric shift, peak consumption will be higher. This normally means higher consumption generated from, yes, fossil fuel power plants, hence higher emissions. And when you don't have the fossil fuel power plants to provide this generation, you are forced to impose blackouts like California did last year.
Blackouts are certainly good for the environment—no electricity generation means no emissions—but how sustainable a strategy is any one including blackouts? Not very. A ban on gas hookups to stimulate use of electrical appliances for cooking and heating, therefore, seems a little excessive as a way of reducing emissions, not to mention lacking in the effectiveness department because of the risk of higher actual emissions when everyone starts using electricity and consumption spikes.
Speaking of effectiveness, here's what the president of consultancy Continental Economics, Jonathan A. Lesser, told The WSJ in 2019:
"Last year, direct use of natural gas in homes and buildings accounted for about 8.5% of total U.S. carbon emissions, and U.S. carbon emissions accounted for about 15% of the world's total," Lesser said.
"So even if all of the U.S. buildings that rely on natural gas today converted to electricity, and all of that electricity was generated from clean sources, the reduction in world-wide carbon emissions would amount to just over 1%. That would have no measurable impact on the global climate."
With that in mind, while it's easy to pit Republican governors against Democratic city authorities, perhaps the point of anti-ban legislation is to save some money and also emissions.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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