Is Berkeley’s newest initiative paving the way for an all-electric future?
I like economics. But I love cooking. I recall making jams using berries from the garden with my mom at age 4. I cooked my way through most of the French Laundry Cookbook. Yes, I can poach a lobster in butter. I make pasta from scratch with my kid. I am a spoiled brat – but with mean skills in the kitchen. A few days ago, a famous behavioral economist friend of mine – let’s call him Stefano — sent me an email that read something like, “you will have to pry my gas stove out of my cold dead hands, Berkeley.“ I sent him a paper bag to breathe into and learned that the city of Berkeley had just “passed” a ban on natural gas connections in new construction – both residential and commercial. That is maybe the most Berkeley thing ever. Well, maybe not.
Why was my friend so upset? If you like to cook, you know that there is nothing like natural gas to regulate the heat at all temperatures immediately. That is a benefit. The cost is that if you do not run your hood, you expose your family to significant air pollution. Also, the gas that may be leaking from your stove or pipes is a potent greenhouse gas in itself. So, there is an externality issue here (more of those are coming below, so hang on).
The electrify-everything mafia will tell you that the electric alternative of induction cooking is just as good. Induction cooking is a technology that in theory allows you to regulate heat as quickly as natural gas and is powered by electricity. Your current cookware may not work on this fancy technology, if your wedding registry did not list cast iron or magnetic stainless steel pots and pans. So you can either get remarried and put those on your registry, or simply go out and buy some. I have cooked on my dad’s “intro level” residential induction “burners” and it is not the same. Even Thomas Keller acknowledges these drawbacks (which lie in the middle heating range). A price equivalent induction range is not as good as a natural gas stove for now. I don’t care what my snobby friend and colleague Reed Walker, who is in love with his induction range, says. Maybe we should have the nerdiest cookoff in history. But in theory, induction solves a problem. It removes the issue of the indoor air pollution (unless you burn the chicken or god forbid – the popcorn) and natural gas leaking in your house or on its way to your house. That is a good thing.
So, I tried to take the emotions out of it and think about this rationally. The motivation behind the policy is that it reduces Berkeley’s carbon footprint, as the city council has identified natural gas as one of the main sources of greenhouse gases for the city of Berkeley, and we are obviously going carbon free. Well, gas leaks. Both physically and through markets. If you plug in your induction stove, it’s not fairies that supply the electricity, but mostly natural gas power plants (since you cook at peak times when the marginal plant in California is usually gas). So, all you have done for now is shifted the gas consumption and pollution from the home to the power plant. Another NIMBY policy.
But hang on. New buildings are durable. They last for 50-100 years or longer. Over this time horizon, I hope we will figure out the storage issue and have transitioned to a close to fully renewable grid. California has required that by my 72ndbirthday all of California’s retail electricity will be carbon free. Hence, we would not need the gas infrastructure to and into the new buildings – then. So this policy is trying to “push” a new technology and prepare us for the all-electric future. I think I can sympathize with this.
But what about choice, Max? Live free or die, is not the motto of Berkeley (yet of another great state) – but if you are a home chef/cook, this is what it may feel like. I think we are overreacting. First, no one is forcing us to put electric stoves into our current homes. If I want to buy another gas-fired stove, I can. And you can give me the virtual stink eye. Come over. I’ll make you some Salmon Rillettes, that will make you forget about your woes. If I do not have a house and I want to buy or rent one, and my preferences for gas fired stoves are strong enough, I will simply not move into a house that does not have natural gas infrastructure. The same goes for school quality. We call this sorting, which is one of the most fun and complex literatures in economics!
So in summary, what do I think? I do not think that this is an all-out bad policy. I think most of us agree that the future has to be mostly electric. In order to get there, durable goods better be electric. And the future starts now. Maybe if this will be adopted at a larger scale, it will lead to the development of lower cost, better quality induction stoves, which will make even Stefano, my famous friend, adopt this technology. And if they turn off the gas pipelines, and you can’t imagine cooking with anything else, you can always get yourself a tank of propane and cook on your balcony. For now.
P.S. If you are about to send a smug email pointing out that in the picture above my younger self is cooking on an electric range, don’t. Northern Bavaria in the early 70’s did not have residential natural gas infrastructure.
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Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian. “Outlawing Gas”, Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, July 22, 2019, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2019/07/22/outlawing-gas/
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.