Gas and Electricity
August 2013, by Scott Bales
There have recently been calls for a transition away from the use of gas in the home for cooking and heating, with the technology being described as environmentally unfriendly, inefficient and bad for health.
Climate and energy think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) is proposing a ban on the installation of new gas appliances in the home by next year, as well as the replacement of existing gas appliances with cleaner technologies over the next 10 years. The organisation cites the inefficiency of gas appliances compared to modern alternatives, and the release of Carbon Monoxide directly into the home – as reasons to ditch gas in favour of cleaner energy.
“Gas fired appliances are outdated, dangerous and should be banned,” said Matthew Wright, Executive Director of BZE. Today, all three of the gas appliances that are sold in our homes have an electric competitor that beats them on price and performance. These include induction cooktops, heat pump hot water units and reverse cycle heat pump air-conditioners,” said Wright.
“Burning gas in homes is dangerous for a number of reasons, including the release of significant amounts of carbon monoxide – a colourless and odourless gas which is more readily absorbed by the blood than oxygen. Carbon monoxide is deadly. It can and does kill a significant number of Australians every year.”
“Gas related deaths in our homes are under-reported with the cause more often than not, not being attributed. This is especially the case with the elderly, but when our young ones are affected it sometimes gets the attention of the authorities.” said Wright.
Tragically, in May of 2010 Chase Robinson and his six-year-old brother Tyler died from poisoning following a carbon monoxide leak from a bedroom heater at their home near Shepparton in Central Victoria. (You can read their mother Vanessa’s story here.)
Jo Walsh is the mother of another family who experienced a life-threatening situation with their gas heater.
This year when it turned chilly in her Melbourne home, Jo began running her gas wall-heater, leaving it on low overnight to take the chill off the rooms in the morning.
After a few days of operation, the fan started making a strange noise, and she immediately called a technician and stopped running the appliance.
It was a few days later that the technician came to service the unit, performing a routine carbon monoxide reading before commencing work. When the alarms began ringing, the technician’s initial response was that there must be an error. When a second reading confirmed that carbon monoxide levels were dangerously high, Jo realized that her family had had a very close call indeed. You can read Jo’s complete story here.
Jo spoke to SEE-Change for a couple of follow-up questions:
SC: How old was the gas heater?
Jo: We’ve been living in the house for 8 years, but the heater is probably around 20 years old.
SC: After your carbon monoxide scare, did you consider investing in a different form of heating?
JW: Because it’s a rental property we didn’t really have that option. I actually like the style of heater because of the kind of heat it provides. I’m happy with the [carbon monoxide] detector that we’re using now.
SC: Are greenhouse gas emissions something you consider when making consumer choices?
JW: They are, but as renters we’re limited in our choices with regard to heating.
In a response to the growing concern about the dangers of gas heating, the Federal government offered to fund a band-aid solution: sensors. Matthew Wright argues:
“Carbon monoxide sensors are too-little too-late. They are ineffective in many situations. The real answer is to ban gas in all new homes and to announce a ten year phase-out for existing households by initially banning the replacement of any gas appliance.”
“Carbon monoxide sensors for all homes is a sop to the dangerous gas and oil lobby that want to keep selling us a dangerous, polluting, and expensive product that we don’t need.”
“Electricity for home heating (as shown in the comparison below) is cheaper, safer, and produces zero emissions. And with renewable energy it is 100% clean.”
“And it’s not just the safety of our precious children today. If we keep burning gas, then we’re going to drive even more dangerous climate change, creating future health problems through heat stress, bushfires and migration of diseases. Gas in our homes is unsafe for us, our children, their future and the climate and environment. Just ban it!” said Wright.
In an ideal world, there would be a lot of businessmen reading Wright’s comments with a smile – people buying large new appliances and technologies obviously means money in the hands of manufacturers, retailers, more taxes for the government. And the opportunity to move away from energy sources where the cost of producing energy is increasing as supplies become scarcer – and towards energy sources that are becoming cheaper almost by the day – seems like it should be tantalising to every energy company.
However, large companies often display a refusal to adapt, and a blindness towards the changing world around them. This happened in the 1920’s. After having lit streets and homes for over one hundred years, the fossil gas industry attempted to fight electricity head on. In a fight to retain dominance, they promoted the ‘all gas home’.
The ‘all gas home’ was a crazy idea from a desperate and dangerous industry trying to remain viable. The ‘all gas home’ included such appliances as the gas iron, gas desk fan, and the gas washing machine. The inconvenience and danger of these appliances meant that by the 1940s gas was relegated to heating and cooking.
The technologies that Wright refers to, induction cooking, heat pump water and space heating are relatively new, and offer many advantages over traditional methods.
Normal electric cooktops run electricity through a wire with high electrical resistance. This heats up the wire, analogous to how using a car’s brakes (which provide physical resistance) will heat up the brake pads. The wires then transfer some of this heat to the cooking surface, which transfers some of that heat to the saucepan.
With Induction cooktops, Electricity running through a circular wire will induce an electric current in any material with iron in it that is above it. By skipping the middle man, this allows all of the heat to reach the saucepan, meaning that less energy is used, and less heat escapes into the house for your air conditioner to deal with. Gas burners have similar problems – so much of the energy is used to (inefficiently) heat the house, not the food. Gas burners have efficiencies of 40%, whereas induction is around 90% efficient. They are also much less of a fire/burning hazard as they direct the heat straight to the pans.
Gas hot water and space heating are around 50-85% efficient, with gas being burnt to create heat, some of which is channelled into the water or air that you want to heat, but with much of it simply being wasted, pouring heat outside the house.
By contrast, heat pump water and space heating have efficiencies of 300-550%. An in depth description of how these heat pumps work can be found at here, but the basic principle is that they follow the same process as a refrigerator, compressing air in order to allow the device to move heat from a cold area to a hot area.
A quick note to those thinking that efficiencies above 100% are impossible. A heater having an efficiency of 500% means that for every 1 unit of energy taken from the mains grid, 5 units of heat are added to the house. This is possible, without violating the conservation of energy principle, because energy (in the form of heat) is taken from outside of the building. For 100% accuracy, we should use the term Coefficient of Performance, not efficiency.
In all 3 of these cases, the gas technologies have an additional problem. Electricity production, even that produced from the dirtiest of coal plants, still does not vent chemicals directly into our homes like gas does.
If this article is making you think you really need to replace that old gas appliance, then the main thing going through your mind right now is probably “Yes, getting these great new technologies would be amazing, but how much will it cost me?”
And I have some good news for you there – in the long term, these technologies don’t actually cost you anything! Taking as an example, induction cooktops vs gas. We’ve used US department of Energy data, and our own local prices to calculate the costs associated with gas versus electricity.
Even with the additional cost to purchase an induction cooktop, even if you have gas for other purposes, and thus still have to pay the entire gas connection fee, and even if you already own a brand new gas cooktop, you are STILL better off buying induction. It will pay for itself well within the life of the appliance.
Gas has never been a cheap, healthy or efficient form of energy. It was a necessary evil a hundred years ago, but it is now a dinosaur. It pollutes the environment, and worse, your own house. It is dangerous, inefficient, and costly: why not ditch it?