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Gas stoves and water heaters in the face of climate change

In 2019, Berkeley became the first city in the country to ban gas stoves and water heaters in all new construction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Since then, dozens more, including Seattle, San Francisco and New York, have followed suit with similar restrictions and President Biden has presented an ambitious plan to help Americans ditch gas appliances and heaters. for the benefit of electrical appliances.

“The United States can create well-paying jobs and reduce emissions and energy costs for families by supporting efficiency improvements and building electrification through support for job-creating retrofit programs and sustainable affordable housing, wider use of heat pumps and induction cookers, and the adoption of modern energy codes for new buildings, ”the White House said of the plan on its website.

Mike Henchen, director of RMI, a non-profit organization working to decarbonize energy systems, sees the switch to electric stoves and water heaters as a key climate solution.

“The gas we use in stoves, water heaters and ovens is a fossil fuel that causes climate change and harms our health,” Henchen told Yahoo News. “There are options and alternatives for keeping us warm, cooking our food, and having a hot shower that can be powered by cleaner sources of energy.”

The natural gas industry, however, is vigorously fighting these proposed changes, and after launching lobbying and social media campaigns, states like Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas all recently passed bans on local ordinances banning new gas connections. .

A gas burner on a stove. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

“Logically, the natural gas industry does not want to see its operations come to an end, so it is doing what it can to keep natural gas in the mix of the distribution network,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president of Urban Land Institute Greenprint Center for Building Performance. the Washington Post. “But in the long run, if cities take their climate goals seriously, electric buildings are inevitable. “

Carbon and methane emissions from buildings account for about 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, most of it from heating. As more Americans look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, some have started replacing gas stoves and water heaters, which is much cheaper than replacing gas ovens.

Gas stoves have also come under scrutiny due to health concerns.

“With gas stoves in particular, when you start a fire in your kitchen, it produces pollution, and they usually don’t get vented out of your space,” Henchen said. “That can be the case if you run a range hood over your cooktop, but we know a lot of people don’t actually use them. ”

In response to an article published last year in the Atlantic which called for the abandonment of gas stoves due to health and climate concerns, the American Gas Association issued a statement aimed at minimizing the environmental impact.

“Residential use of natural gas for cooking produces less than 0.2% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions, and total residential natural gas consumption in the United States produces the same amount of greenhouse gas. greenhouse that two weeks of Chinese coal consumption, “said the industrial group in its statement.

While it is true that the use of natural gas heaters and appliances results in an emission reduction of around 30-45% compared to those that run on petroleum or coal, this is hardly proof that they are not contributing to the problem.

Swapping out a gas stove for an electric stove is just a small first step. According to 2015 data from the US Energy Information Administration, only 2.8% of all natural gas burned in American homes is used for cooking. In states that have mostly clean sources of electricity, cooking with electricity has a smaller carbon footprint than natural gas, but that’s not always the case. When it comes to reducing emissions, the scale of stove and water heater conversions is a key issue. The more households that do, the greater the impact.

Gas stoves and water heaters in the face of climate change

A gas furnace and a water heater in the basement. (Getty Images)

As President Biden’s Build Back Better plan attests, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings is poised to become a much higher global priority. In its most recent report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change singled out buildings, saying they “represent an essential part of a low-carbon future.”

Responding to the report, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: ‘We know what needs to be done to limit global warming – make coal a matter of history and switch to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance to countries on the front lines. “

As part of its plan to achieve a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the UK government is seeking to ban the sale of gas boilers – as well as stoves and water heaters – to from 2025.

Critics of plans to phase out gas connections are quick to point out that the transition to electricity will require a huge increase in electricity production.

“Of course, if the goal is to truly ‘electrify’ our national economy, we’re not just talking about replacing all of the existing power generation,” Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation of New Mexico, a group conservative thinking opposed to government spending. , written in National Review. “You will also need a lot of new electricity for all these new appliances. Indeed, experts say “electrification” would increase US electricity use by 40%. “

Proponents say that a massive conversion of fossil fuels is the key, and that it would create jobs. At a Senate hearing in September titled “Examining the Economic Benefits of Our Electrifying America’s Homes and Buildings,” Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the transition to appliances cleaner makes economic sense.

“From the manufacture of water heaters, ranges and dryers to their installation by electricians and plumbers, an aggressive commitment to electrical construction would create 1.1 million new direct and indirect jobs over the next 10 years,” Stokes said.

Gas stoves and water heaters in the face of climate change

An induction hob. (Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Partly because of a decades-long public relations campaign by gas companies, cooking over a gas flame is considered more aesthetically pleasing. The California Restaurant Association has filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Berkeley’s natural gas ban, saying “restaurants specializing in international foods so popular in the Bay Area will be unable to prepare many of their specialties without natural gas.” .

Henchen, however, notes that recent advances in electric cooking technology have made conversions.

“Induction hobs represent a small part of the market, but growing rapidly. It really is the best product in terms of very fast water heating or precise control of high or low heat levels, ”he said.

As with any climate change initiative, however, the debate over whether to convert to electric stoves is often reduced to a partisan argument about the role of government.

At that same September hearing where Stokes gave his testimony, Senator Mike Lee of Utah laid out the Republican position on federal funding for the exchange of American gas ranges for electric ranges.

“The answer is not to spend billions of federal taxpayer dollars to electrify every American home and business, and, equally important, the answer is not to fundamentally change federal policy to regulate energy in its own right. production and consumption, ”Lee said in his opening remarks. “Instead, we must free up American industry so that new and diverse sources of energy can help create a more resilient energy future for America.”

To hear Henchen say it, however, governments at the local, state, and federal levels will need to play a key role in helping people move away from fossil-fueled stoves and heaters.

“We’re absolutely looking, whether it’s government programs or utility programs, that really increase the incentive to really help people make that change and make those investments in our homes and businesses,” he said. Henchen said. “Climate change is a big problem and no one has solved it yet. To progress, we must all row in the same direction. We cannot do this without meaningful government action; otherwise we would already.


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