Gas stoves and water heaters face a climate change reckoning

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In 2019, Berkeley became the first city in the country to ban gas stoves and water heaters in all new construction in order to cut down greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Since then, dozens of others, including Seattle, San Francisco and New York, have followed suit with similar restrictions and President Biden has laid out an ambitious plan to help Americans ditch gas appliances and heaters in favor of electric ones.

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

Mike Henchen, a principal at RMI, a nonprofit working to decarbonize energy systems, sees switching to electric stoves and water heaters as a key climate solution.

“The gas that we use in stoves, water heaters and furnaces is a fossil fuel that causes climate change and harms our health,” Henchen told Yahoo News. “There are options and alternatives to keep us warm, cook our food and take a hot shower that can be powered with cleaner energy sources.”

The natural gas industry, however, is vigorously fighting these proposed changes, and after it mounted lobbying and social media campaigns, states such as Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas have all recently passed prohibitions on local ordinances banning new gas hookups.

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

“Logically the natural gas industry does not want to see its business end, so it’s doing what it can to keep natural gas in the utility grid mix,” Marta Schantz, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance, told the Washington Post. “But long term, if cities are serious about their climate goals, electric buildings are inevitable.”

Carbon and methane emissions from buildings account for roughly 12 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with the bulk of that coming from heating. As more Americans look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, some have begun by replacing gas stoves and water heaters, which is much less expensive than swapping out gas-powered furnaces.

Gas stoves have also come under scrutiny because of health concerns.

“With gas stoves in particular, when you run a fire inside your kitchen, it’s producing pollution, and they are usually not ventilated out of your space,” Henchen said. “It can be if you run a hood over your cooktop, but we know that a lot of people don’t actually use those.”

In response to an article published last year in the Atlantic that advocated ditching gas stoves due to health and climate concerns, the American Gas Association issued a statement that sought to downplay the environmental impact.

“Residential natural gas use for cooking produces less than 0.2% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions, and total U.S. residential natural gas consumption produces the same amount of greenhouse gasses as two weeks of Chinese coal consumption,” the industry group said in its statement.

While it is true that the use of natural gas heaters and appliances results in approximately 30 to 45 percent lower emissions than those that run on oil or coal, that’s hardly proof that it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

Swapping out a gas stove for an electric one amounts to a small first step. Only 2.8 percent of all natural gas burned in U.S. homes is used for cooking, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 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 making a dent in emissions, the scale of stove and water heater conversions is a key question. The more households that do it, the bigger the impact.

Gas fueled hot water heater and furnace in basement.
A gas-fueled furnace and hot water heater in a basement. (Getty Images)

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

In response to the report, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “We know what must be done to limit global warming — consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance for countries on the frontline.”

As part of its plan to reach a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the U.K. government is looking to ban the sale of gas boilers — as well as stoves and water heaters — starting in 2025.

Critics of plans to phase out gas hookups are quick to point out that transitioning to electricity will require dramatically scaling up electricity production.

“Of course, if the goal is to truly ‘electrify’ our national economy, we’re not just talking about replacing all existing electricity generation,” Paul Gessing, president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative think tank opposed to government spending, wrote in National Review. “You’ll need a lot of new electricity for all those new appliances, too. Indeed, experts say ‘electrification’ would increase U.S. electricity consumption by 40 percent.”

Advocates say a wholesale conversion away from fossil fuels is the whole point, and doing so would create jobs. At a September Senate hearing 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, Santa Barbara testified that the transition to cleaner appliances makes economic sense.

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

An induction cooktop.
An induction cooktop. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

In part due to a decades-long public relations campaign by gas companies, cooking over a gas flame is viewed as more aesthetically desirable. The California Restaurant Association filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Berkeley’s natural gas ban that claimed “restaurants specializing in international foods so prized in the Bay Area will be unable to prepare many of their specialties without natural gas.”

Henchen, however, notes that recent technological advances in electric cooking have been winning converts.

“Induction cooktops are a small but fast-growing part of the market. They’re really the best product in terms of heating up water really fast or having precise controls for high or low heat levels,” he said.

As with every climate change initiative, however, the debate about 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 delivered her testimony, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah staked out the Republican position on federal funding for swapping America’s gas stoves for electric ones.

“The answer is not to spend billions of federal taxpayer dollars to electrify every American home and business, and, just as importantly, the answer is not to fundamentally alter the federal policy to regulate energy in its generation and its consumption,” Lee said in his opening remarks. “Instead we need to unshackle American industry so that new and diverse energy sources can help create a more resilient energy future for America.”

To hear Henchen tell it, however, government at the local, state and federal level will need to play a key role in helping people transition away from stoves and heaters that run on fossil fuels.

“We’re absolutely looking for, whether it’s government programs or utility programs, that are really increasing the incentive to really help people make this switch and make these investments in our homes and businesses,” Henchen said. “Climate change is a big problem and nobody has solved it yet. To make progress we need to all be rowing the boat in the same direction. We can’t do it without significant government action; otherwise we’d already be doing it.”


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