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Outlawing Gas

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.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

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 View All

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.

47 thoughts on “Outlawing Gas Leave a comment

  1. I agree that gas is better for cooking than electricity — both more controllable and capable of higher temperatures — and maybe it always will be. But I don’t think you can say the same for space and water heating. Cheaper, maybe, now, in the absence of a GHG tax. But in the long run will cooking alone be enough to justify the costs of the gas distribution infrastructure? Gas assets could be stranded economically — homebuyers may seek out houses with expensive gas connections! — and perhaps Berkeley is trying to avoid creating stranded-asset cost. Perhaps.

    • Spot on. Gas for cooking is such a side issue (very small proportion of total heating requirements). If it wasn’t for the infrastructure costs of providing a mains-connected gas supply we could all have gas cooking and it wouldn’t hurt the environment (except for the leaks). The big concern I have with this policy is the idea of using valuable electricity for space heating and hot water heating. This is simply not efficient. Just because electricity can be produced from renewable energy doesn’t mean we can waste it. While we still rely on natural-gas fired power-plants for peak times, every gigajoule of additional electricity we consume is produced by two gigajoules of gas. If everyone promises me they won’t use any hot water as soon as they get up in the morning then they don’t need natural gas.

  2. Max, apart from your somewhat dangerous suggestion that balcony cooking with propane cylinders is a viable option, you said it well in that paragraph. This is a transition we have to make, even if some sacrifice is necessary. More power to the Berkeley for beating the path.

  3. “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.”

    Not true. At the incremental margin in California as measured year over year (not at the 4 second level), is met by renewables, not natural gas. That’s a much more appropriate metric for long-lived infrastructure investment.

    And induction cooktops are 1) not much more expensive than gas–only a couple hundred dollars and 2) they before better at both the low and high ends of the heating range.

    • @mcubedecon

      Max was referring to environmental impact. Though your “incremental margin in California as measured year over year” might be useful for household budgeting decisions, it has nothing to do with carbon emissions.

      Grid electricity is used as it’s generated. If solar and wind aren’t available in northern California (as they often aren’t at dinner time) demand is met primarily by natural gas and nuclear. Natural gas has a carbon footprint of .7kg/kWh including leakage; nuclear has no carbon footprint.

      • Year over year changes are the most relevant metric for long-lived investments such as household electrification. Solar and wind are increasing penetration, and yes, wind is very available in the evening–that’s when the breeze picks up between the coast and the inland areas (in fact wind production drops during the daylight hours). In addition, housing investments are very long-lived and battery storage technology will cost effectively carry solar generation into the evening within the next half decade. Given a likely house life of 50 years or more, any gas fired carbon footprint is likely 10% or less of the house’s life. (I’m not holding my breath as to when nuclear will be cost effective against solar + storage even at today’s costs.)

        • “Solar + storage at today’s costs?” Solar + storage doesn’t exist. Nearly every grid-scale storage facility is sitting next to a gas plant, and there’s a reason: having an expensive array of batteries dependent on time of day and weather is a waste of money.

          The most relevant metric, in terms of environmental impact, is what’s generating electricity to meet demand. Yes, I’m well-aware of what renewables cost-effectively “will” do, how the wind “will” magically pick up as the sun sets. I’m aware solar and wind have been increasing penetration since 1979, when Jimmy Carter promised 20% of America’s energy would come from the sun by the year 2000. If renewable electricity progresses at the rate it has since, we’ll reach 20% penetration a scant 830 years into the future.

          Needless to say, renewables have been an abominable failure at weaning the U.S. from fossil fuel. Maybe that’s why last week Ohio legislators followed the lead of Illinois, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, cancelling the state’s RPS in favor of nuclear energy – energy that works. Energy that decarbonized 75% of France’s electricity in less than two decades.

          No more time to waste on renewable fantasies – enough is enough.

          • You’re behind the times on where storage stands. The new proposed projects (numerous) are stand alone without fossil support. Even Glendale’s has very scaled down set of ICEs.

            Renewable costs are so low that it’s pretty clear that nuclear can’t compete on a cost basis. Again, PG&E says relicensing Diablo would cost $100-$120/MWh vs current renewable costs under $60/MWH (I’ve seen the actual data). Nuclear plants in the SE–the most utility friendly region in the county–have gone bankrupt mid construction and also will cost in excess for $100/MWH. What part of economically disastrous do you not get out of this choice.The required subsidy will be monstrous–even existing plants need a subsidy to continue running. That’s the only thing those states did–keep their existing nukes going. No plans for new ones. Until someone comes forward with a real nuclear project that can compete economically, this option is dead. We still don’t know what will happen with the new nuke technologies and the promises have never borne out in the industry. So don’t bring up that fantasy.

        • When the sun isn’t shining batteries at solar facilities, like those at gas plants. will be storing electricity from the grid, wasting 15-20% from resistance losses and bi-directional inversion. Electricity stored in batteries, you see, does not become “green” just because they’re located near a solar farm. And electrical energy can move through wires in both directions.

          “Renewable costs are so low that it’s pretty clear that nuclear can’t compete on a cost basis.” The belief solar and wind are even comparable to dispatchable nuclear energy, that availability has no value, that the cost and emissions of necessary gas backup somehow disappear, is absurd. There’s no competition.

        • When the sun isn’t shining batteries at solar facilities, just like those outside gas plants, will be storing electricity from the grid and wasting 15-20% of it in resistance and bi-directional inversion losses. Electricity stored in batteries, you see, does not become “green” just because they’re located near a solar farm. And electrical energy can move through wires in both directions.

          “Renewable costs are so low that it’s pretty clear that nuclear can’t compete on a cost basis.” The belief solar and wind are comparable to dispatchable nuclear energy, that availability has no value, that the cost and emissions of necessary gas backup somehow disappear, is absurd. There’s no competition.

          You need to rent a car for the weekend, and you’re given the choice of one you can drive anytime vs. one you can only drive when the sun is shining. Both rentals cost the same. Which is the better value? I can’t make it any plainer – Econ 101.

          • If the additional generation for storage is coming from an incremental investment in renewables,which is often the case with an on-site solar+storage project, then the energy is green. That goes to my point that I often make that the proper basis of analysis is looking at the year over year increment, not the hour to hour increment for comparing emission reductions.

            As to cost, there is no “dispatchable” nuclear in the U.S. as of now and dispatchable nuclear is as much of a dream as dispatchable solar. (And PG&E has resisted my proposal that they acknowledge the full going forward cost of Diablo in their annual unit scheduling, which would lead to PG&E shutting down the plant for much of the late winter and early spring.)

            Even if nuclear has the added values that you list, those values do not add up to the $50 to $80/MWH premium that nuclear demands over solar and wind, using PG&E’s own cost estimates for relicensing Diablo and the cost so far of the Vogtl plant.

        • “If the additional generation for storage is coming from an incremental investment in renewables,which is often the case with an on-site solar+storage project, then the energy is green.”

          Richard – did you not read the post to which you responded? You’re completely negating the value of availability. You’re saying, “Two rental cars which can only be driven during the day = one rental car that can be driven anytime.” We could have twenty day-only cars and we’d still be calling Uber for that important meeting Saturday night, wouldn’t we? We could have 20 new solar farms, but the CO2 from the 20 new gas plants generating electricity each night is still floating about, absorbing heat from the sun each day. Isn’t it?

          You insist on repeating a deficient argument again, and again – as if repetition might somehow cure it of its fundamental logical flaw.

          “…dispatchable nuclear is as much of a dream as dispatchable solar.”

          Nonsense – plants in France and Germany load-follow all day long. In fact, nuclear is needed in Germany to stabilize the inherently-unstable output of wind farms:

          “Most of the currently operating Generation II nuclear reactors were designed to have strong maneuvering capabilities. Nuclear power plants in France and Germany operate in load-following mode. They participate in the primary and secondary frequency control, and some units follow a variable load program with one or two large power changes per day. In France, load-following is needed to balance daily and weekly power variations in electricity supply and demand since nuclear energy represents a large share of the national mix. In Germany, load-following became important in recent years when a large share of intermittent sources of electricity generation (e.g. wind) was introduced to the national mix.”
          https://www.oecd-nea.org/nea-news/2011/29-2/nea-news-29-2-load-following-e.pdf

          “As to cost, there is no “dispatchable” nuclear in the U.S. as of now…”

          For the lack of more flexible advanced reactors from the 1980s and 1990s we can blame our home-grown anti-nuclear ideologues, and their incessant exploitation of regulatory roadblocks,

          “PG&E has resisted my proposal that they acknowledge the full going forward cost of Diablo in their annual unit scheduling…”

          I’m not surprised PG&E would resist shutting down Diablo for much of the late winter and early spring, and losing $millions in revenue, based on the proposal of an anti-nuclear activist. They already lost $450 by having their staff attorney read it.

          “…those values do not add up to the $50 to $80/MWH premium that nuclear demands over solar and wind…”

          PG&E wants to close DIablo Canyon to burn gas – of course they’re exaggerating its cost. For nuclear in general your figure is more than one order of magnitude too high.

          • Battery storage is used to firm the output of the renewables. And they have the added advantage of dispersed generation and size. When a plant goes down, it doesn’t become the 1,000 MW N-1 liability. And as I just posted, California’s emissions fell again in 2017 due to increased renewables generation. I have the facts on my side.

            U.S. reactors do not load follow, and Diablo most certainly does not. So how does referring to France and Germany support continuing to run U.S. reactors that create increased natural gas generation to load follow? The European reactors have huge minimum generation problems. Given that the Europeans do not have the AC driven load swings that we have in the West, this would create a difficult problem that would increase the need for natural gas peakers–exactly the problem you claim they would solve.

            We don’t have advanced reactors because they were too costly–don’t blame anything other than economics. The industry has failed over and over and over again to deliver. Look at Vogtl, yet another failed attempt that will cost customers dearly.

            Hold it, is PG&E afraid of losing the revenue from Diablo if they shut down seasonally (and note that their recovery of their initial capital investment is independent of whether the plant runs under decoupling), or are they interested in selling more natural gas by shutting down Diablo? You can’t have it both ways.

            Provide real evidence that my estimate is ten times too high. At this point you have no professional credibility to back up your unsubstantiated assertion. I have PG&E’s data and my workpapers. PG&E did not challenge my testimony on that matter in the case.

  4. Question: does it make sense to electrify space and water heating given how small the contribution is from renewables in winter? Soon, the only low GHG firm capacity left in California will be geothermal (<4% of CAISO electricity in 2018).

    Ignoring rooftop solar, CAISO got as little as 10.6% of electricity from solar + wind together over a month over the last two winters; the average for December and January was only 11.8%. Contrast this with an average 27.5% from solar + wind April through June over the last two years, when needed heating will be minimal.

    This year so far, California has had at least one 2-week stretch averaging 61 GWh/day of wind + solar, and at least one 1-week stretch of an average of 56 GWh. Average so far for the year is 125 GWh, disproportionately high, of course, during the lowest demand season.

    Won't California GHG emissions increase by shifting to electric heat in the absence of a large supply of low GHG firm capacity?

    I'm also curious if California has the gas infrastructure to survive a cold week after such a shift.

  5. Thanks to George Mitchell and the widespread use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, natural gas is abundant and cheap within the US, is projected to be so for a long time, and is likely to become increasingly preferred as the alternative to coal around the world. Natural gas, whose composition is roughly 90% methane, has far lower GHG intensity than coal and its increasing use is the leading contributor to electric power decarbonization in the world (excepting nuclear power).

    The City of Berkeley’s actions will not contribute even an insignificant amount toward averting climate change, but will leave a maze of dead-leg pipes within the city, each potentially accumulating trace compounds and liquids that might contribute to future leaks. Methane is a potent GHG, so increased leakage is likely to offset any potential climate change benefit, which the author points out is de minimus, since natural gas consumption is merely shifted from direct flame impingement on the cooking pan to a remote gas-fired power plant.

    Restaurants and commercial kitchens will be faced with a range of challenges including new equipment, training of chefs to use the new equipment, potential loss of customers if quality suffers, and substantial demand charges for electricity. These will be offset by reduced HVAC operating costs since less air will flow through the hoods, but some capital may be needed to update the HVAC system.

    Households will become dependent on a single source of energy for cooking, heating, and hot water. In Berkeley’s mild climate, heat pumps could be used to meet these needs, at higher expense, further exacerbating the already high cost of housing. Actually, heat pumps don’t fully meet the needs because heat addition rates are lower than with burners.

    As I see it, this policy is aimed at converting the external costs associated with the citizens share of climate change into direct costs. Generally, I think it’s a good thing to recognize external costs, but I also think there should be choice about how to pay for them, especially when there may be both unintended consequences and other means that citizens of Berkeley may prefer to cover those costs. Finally, I think the Berkeley policy is premature and should be deferred pending further electric sector decarbonization, especially for marginal resources, so early adopters achieve actual net GHG reductions at a reasonable cost.

    • “The City of Berkeley’s actions will not contribute even an insignificant amount toward averting climate change”

      Focusing solely on Berkeley is NOT the point of this policy. It’s part of a larger effort in which more than 50 communities are likely to introduce ordinances that promote electricity over natural gas this year, eventually moving to all electric only for new construction.

      As for your other concerns, most of them are not valid, as demonstrated by numerous studies and experience. Methane leakage is already occurring at alarming rates, so the remaining residual leakage will be trivial. The latest cooking and heating technologies are now competitive with gas in both quality and cost, which is why this move is occurring now–it’s not just wishful thinking. And I as I pointed out elsewhere here, the incremental new generation resource is renewable, not gas, when looking at the true marginal resources. California already is well decarbonized which is why this is so beneficial.

      • But focusing on Berkeley is the point of my comment, in particular that it’s policy actions are inconsequential and premature until more power sector decarbonization is in place. You are misconstruing the marginal resource, which is the next increment that must be brought on to satisfy incremental demand. Leaving aside that variable renewables are not dispatchable, you must be aware that renewables are variable and that output of solar PV is not coincident with a lot of demand. And a lot of demand is for cooking and heating which occurs largely during periods of low or no insolation. That demand — that MARGINAL DEMAND — will be satisfied largely be gas until large scale storage displaces gas.

        And California is NOT ‘well decarbonized.’ Perusal of EIA data shows that renewable resource additions have only compensated for the shutdown of San Onefre Nuclear Generating Station. CO2 emissions per Megawatt-hour, on an annual basis, have hardly budged the last 7years.

        • And you are missing the point of Berkeley’s, and other cities’, initiatives, and even the bigger intention of California’s AB 32 and subsequent laws (and even SB 1078 in 2002). Although certain politicians get lost on what local actions can actually do, the real intention is providing leadership to other communities, states and nations on taking action. You may contend the effectiveness of that intent, but the fact is that the explosion of renewables development, even globally, is in large part the result of California’s actions. Going back even further, the adoption of an energy efficiency code in the early 1970s by the City of Davis led to the worldwide application of such codes. This is just another step in that campaign.

          As for the incremental usage, you are ignoring that wind and storage is available during the evening hours and those technologies are also being added and will be added at a faster rate in the future. EBCE which serves Berkeley is moving toward higher renewable mixes that surpass the state’s RPS and it’s that incremental mix that should be used for comparison of emissions. As for emission rates, the GHG inventory continues to drop significantly for the electricity sector while load has stayed constant. That means either the ARB inventory or the EIA emission factors are wrong. Given the errors I’ve found in other EIA data (e.g., off road emissions), I put my money on the ARB. See https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/cc/inventory/pubs/reports/2000_2016/ghg_inventory_trends_00-16.pdf

  6. Nice article, Dr. Auffhammer. I’m not nearly the cook you are, but I do enjoy my gas cooktop and agree that an equivalent induction cooktop is more expensive. Three things to point out. First, another advantage of induction is safety — the only thing hot is the pot or pan — no more kids touching the hot burner and having to go to the emergency room. Second, while true that the “marginal” power plant in California is likely a natural gas plant today, that’s not the full picture. We have a renewable portfolio standard in California, as you know, requiring that about 33% of electricity today come from renewable sources (raising to 60%) by 2030. That means that any additional electricity use must be “matched” with at least a third renewable power or more going forward. While the marginal source may be natural gas in the instant, that additional fossil power necessarily implies additional renewables at another hour of the year to meet the requirements. Third, shifting natural gas use and associated pollution to a power plant rather than your home is not as equivalent as you imply. Use at the power plant avoids all the potential methane leaks in the distribution system. In addition, power plants have stringent emission controls, meaning that the actual pollution is likely significantly less. Finally, it’s not really a NIMBY issue to shift pollution from right under your nose to a properly located power plant with a stack that disperses any remaining emissions over a large, often rural area.

    Thanks for listening.

  7. The Berkeley ordinance bans gas connections in NEW low rise construction–scarcely “outlawing gas”.
    We all need to acknowledge the health impacts of indoor gas combustion, as well as the climate impact of substantial methane leakage throughout the gas production/distribution/storage system. Avoiding the stranded assets of gas connections to new long lasting construction strikes me as a smart strategic approach to get us in the direction we need to go. It also saves thousands of dollars in trenching, piping etc for new construction.
    One benefit of this local jurisdiction approach is avoiding the industry influence at the state level. I have participated in CEC workshops on the transition away from gas and have been appalled at the misrepresentations from gas industry (SoCalGas especially) regarding the potential for “renewable gas”–such as modelling based on highly speculative cost projections and assumptions re availability. I say–go Berkeley!

  8. Would you care to venture a guess as to when the use of natural gas in existing buildings in Berkeley will be outlawed? And perhaps add a comment about how the significant cost of such a conversion — particularly in rental housing — would interact with Berkeley’s rent control laws.

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