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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. Interesting blog, thanks for giving this trend some exposure. I’d say that eventually one will not be able to purchased propane in the manner you describe, unless it is from a carbon neutral source.

    Another option to full electrification is to consider decarbonizing the gas grid, instead of eventually closing it, and I am surprised no one brought it up in the comments. In the near-term, gas utilities can start to reduce the carbon impact of the delivered product with renewable (bio-sourced) methane, AKA RNG. I realize this is mostly an offset via volumetric displacement, and the RNG molecules often don’t make it to the end user, but offsets are effective GHG reduction tools in themselves.

    In the longer-term, hydrogen could be used to replace the geologically-sourced methane delivered today by the gas utilities. Initially this could be supplied by steam-reformed methane combined with carbon capture and sequestration, if such technology is allowed by regulators. Once the cost of electrolyzers declines, which is reasonably likely, then hydrogen could be produced from renewables.

    Conversion of gas utilities to hydrogen in getting serious consideration in the UK. For more info: https://www.h21.green/

    • Yes, SoCalGas claims that it can replace much of its gas supply with RNG. However, that ignores the high cost of that RNG, and RNG will always cost much more than fracked mineral natural gas because of the transportation costs to get the biomass to the refining plant. On an incremental basis then, electrification becomes very cost effective against natural gas.

      And even then, the estimate for available RNG is less than 40% of current gas usage. We should ask what is the most cost effective use of that supply if that is what we choose to use? Given that option, the very first thing to do is to look at the highest cost of delivery, which is via small gauge distribution lines to distant residential and commercial customers. Another argument for electrification of the building code.

      As for hydrogen, it is promising but the pipeline leakage rate will be enormous due to the much smaller molecules. A much more promising option is onsite production which uses delivered water cracked with on site solar panels. The combusted fuel can be recovered as hot water for other domestic uses.

  2. As part of a kitchen remodel, we switched to induction 4 years ago and are very happy. Cooking performance is generally excellent, easy to control. Most of my pots and pans worked fine, I had to replace a couple. Addressing global warming to me is more than enough justification. The bonus is in health benefits for those switching away from gas, both in increased indoor air quality and in safety with children (in my case two grandchildren under 4 years old).
    Research on links from gas cooking to asthma is available. https://www.treehugger.com/kitchen-design/australian-study-finds-gas-stoves-increase-rate-childhood-asthma.html

  3. The article suggests one solution: use propane outside.

    Actually, you can get a tank of propane, run a short propane line (or repurpose your existing natural gas line) and cook in your kitchen. No need to move it out to the balcony. Lots of homes across the country use propane for heating, water heating, and cooking. According to the Census housing stock data, it’s about 5.7 million homes that use propane for cooking.

    Indeed many people in energy-efficient and otherwise all-electric homes have installed propane cooktops (electric ovens are just fine; we’ve had the gas cooktop / electric oven combo for 40 years).

    You can either install a large propane tank and have the propane truck come to your house once a year, or you can use 5 – 10 gallon propane cylinders that you haul to the nearest propane dealer. Either way, you can easily and economically integrate a propane range into an otherwise all-electric home. Your local fire code may hold some surprises.

    With gas utilities in most of the country charging $10/month or higher monthly fixed charges, and a range cooktop (assume an electric oven) using only about 1-2 gallons of propane per month, it’s actually cheaper to go with propane if you use only a little bit of gas, because you avoid the monthly fixed charge. Maybe the gas utilities will learn that high fixed charges chase away potential customers.

    An important note, however: propane has more carbon that methane, so your CO2 emissions will go up. Methane is CH4; 20% of the atoms are carbon; Propane is C3H8; 27% of the atoms are carbon. The stoichiometry is a little more complicated, as each C bonds with two O to make CO2, while each two H bond with one O to make H2O. Bottom line: using propane produces 139 lb of CO2 per million BTU or heat, compared with only 117 lb for natural gas. And the bottom of your copper Revere Ware will blacken sooner for the same reason.

    I, too, enjoy cooking, and do so with gas. I’ve not yet used an induction range for more than the basics. But I do think that cooking with an open flame is a technology from the stone age that we will outgrow.

    • The methane leakage from gas likely offsets the CO2 difference between propane and “natural gas”. I’ve thought the same thing about propane cook tops. Why all that expense for such a small amount of fuel?

  4. Agree with you Max, about cooking with gas – it’s better and easer. It’s also more efficient from an energy perspective, although until 2025 it’s probably dirtier than electricity. Until then Diablo Canyon Power Plant will be providing 20% of your electricity with no carbon emissions, and almost 40% of your clean energy.

    After that, all bets are off. Because PG&E has refused to commit to replacing Diablo Canyon with renewables, it will be replaced mostly by gas. And batteries? Anyone who believes we will ever “figure out the storage issue” – i.e., how storage might one day compensate for the intermittency of renewables – doesn’t know enough about the physics of grid electricity.

    Currently, all grid-scale storage in California combined would be capable of powering our state for less than 10 seconds. That’s after 15-20% of stored energy was wasted by internal resistance and bi-directional inversion losses. And because existing battery banks are charged at gas plants, they’re 15-20% dirtier than generating electricity to meet demand in real time.

    So nuclear is our only realistic option for going carbon-free. Illinois, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey understand, and are keeping their nuke plants open with a zero emission credit (renewables enthusiasts like to call it a “bailout”). Though California’s gas patron-saints are working very hard to close Diablo Canyon down asap, whether it is actually shut down, given PG&E’s new financial universe, remains to be seen. There’s certainly no justifiable environmental reason for it.

    • “Because PG&E has refused to commit to replacing Diablo Canyon with renewables”

      It’s not PG&E’s job to replace Diablo Canyon. Almost all of Diablo’s output (>16,000 GWH) is currently being sold to the CCAs–PG&E meets all of its current bundled customers’ load with the remainder of its portfolio. The CCAs will largely have the loss covered by 2024.

      And many generation systems are running quite well with nuclear. Just saw that Kenya is at 75% renewables (which includes large hydro) without nuclear. It’s happening despite claims otherwise.

      • @mcubedecon

        Then whose job is it to provide Californians with clean energy? CCA’s? That’s a laugh. Unregulated CCAs, which aren’t even required to divulge the details of their power contracts to their customers, will give you whatever they happen to have at the moment. If you really trust them to deliver 100% renewable electricity, I have a bridge to sell you.

        There are different plans available from CCAs. For example, my city’s 100%-renewables plan seemed expensive, so we shopped around and found a 100%-unicorns-running-on-treadmills plan that was getting its electricity from the same Calpine gas plant – for 15% less! It pays to shop around.

        Most wouldn’t think Kenya, with 46% of its citizens living below the poverty line, serves as a suitable example for California – where buildng Spacex rockets and pumping water for our $50-billion produce industry sometimes needs to happen when it’s cloudy or the wind isn’t blowing. Even Kenya only relies on intermittent, crappy renewables because they can’t afford anything else – that’s why they’re teaming up with Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Libya, Djibouti, and Uganda to form the East African Power Pool (EAPP), which will get a full 19% of its electricity from dependable, carbon-free nuclear plants. Maybe then Kenyan engineers will be building rockets, and sending money to help the poor starving children of California.

        • The IOUs are not required to divulge the details of their contracts to their customers either. In fact, the non disclosure agreements (of which I’ve signed most) greatly limit what can be told to customers.

          And I trust the CCAs much more than the IOUs to deliver clean energy. The CCAs are run by elected officials accountable directly to the electorate. Too often we see that CPUC commissioners are accountable to the IOUs and are too easily bought off. There’s a reason why the CCAs have quickly exceeded the RPS while the IOUs are just now reaching the 2020 target. If you trust corporations to act in our best interest, I have a bridge to sell you…

          BTW, how did you shop around for a different plan? Direct access isn’t available to residential customers. And if you’re going the DA route and found a not credible plan, you are only illustrating my point about corporations and societal interests. So of course the CCA’s plan cost more–it was also credible.

          As for EAPP, does not yet have any nuclear plants, so we’ll see if that pans out. But if it does, it will be because China heavily subsidizes the construction as part of its Belt & Rail program to extend its economic sphere.

          • The electorate has no idea what CCAs are providing, either. Can you tell me with certainty CCAs aren’t being bought off by fossil fuel interests? CPUC has some accountability, CCAs have none. Of the many ridiculous assumptions upon which the renewables fantasy relies, that CCAs can be deemed credible with no verification whatsoever has to take the cake.

            Maybe EAPP will have nuclear, maybe it will have none. It will have a grid, powered by dispatchable electricity, so Africans will have a shot at prosperity. To their credit, Africans recognize there’s no future in plastic solar panels from Greenpeace.

          • If you think that CPUC commissioners are more accountable than local elected officials then I definitely have a bridge to sell you. I can tell you that I’m more certain that CCAs aren’t being bought off by fossil fuel interests than CPUC commissioners. We already have a case a the President of the Commission being bought off by at least one utility and being forced to retire (not resign, BTW). Having been working on CPUC proceedings for 3 decades and can tell you that there is much less accountability there than at the local governments where I’ve worked on some pretty obscure resource issues. If you are paying attention to CCA politics around the state, you will see that there is definitely a lot of public attention on their actions. You need to present evidence of some type that the CPUC is more accountable than local agencies. I’ve seen special districts that are more accountable than the CPUC.

            I’ll also add that we have too often fallen into the “central planning fallacy”–that we can stand in the center and control everything while avoiding mistakes. The problem is that when we have a single central planner when that planner makes a mistake, it impacts everyone and we don’t have a diversity of outcomes. If instead we have a diversified planning environment, when a planner makes a mistake it impacts a much smaller area and is more easily corrected. It’s the same reason why an electric system that has one big generating plant is less reliable than one that has 10 smaller ones that add up to the same capacity even if they have the same average outage rate.

          • As to Ghana, I recently met with a staff member from Ghana to discuss setting up microgrids for larger industrial customers. Ghana has one of the best run utilities on the continent. They see a different future than the one you postulate without any direct experience.

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