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There is some debate among scholars over when humans first learned to control fire. A large body of evidence suggests people have been using it for around 600,000 years, but recent discoveries have pushed the date back to as far as 1 million years ago. Regardless of when exactly it started, there is no question that controlling fire has changed the course of human evolution. Fire allowed our ancestors to cook food, fend off predators, and venture into harsh climates. It encouraged people to gather together in groups and stay up into the night, and for millions of years it has made our dwellings warm and comfortable. But as amazing as it’s been, using fire is not without problems, especially as our population gets larger and environmental concerns grow.
In today’s world fire still provides most of the heating needs in our dwellings. The two largest uses are for space heating and water heating. Of course, the way we use fire today is a bit more sophisticated than our ancestors, as we have multiple fuel sources to choose from. Obviously, there is wood, which has been a fuel since the beginning. Then there is coal and in some places peat, which the Irish have used for years. Add to the mix fuel oil, natural gas, propane, and other fossil fuels and you see that we now have a wide variety of things to burn in our homes. The real question, though, is why are we still burning things at all?
THE OLDEST FUEL: WOOD
There’s nothing like a blazing fireplace to warm you up on a cold winter’s day. Trees are, in theory, a renewable resource (as long as the wood isn’t burned faster than it can be grown) but wood does not burn very efficiently. Typical open-hearth fireplaces are energy hogs, only converting about 15 percent of wood’s energy into heat. In addition, the process of burning the wood releases fine particles and combustion by-products up the chimney and into your home, which is a health hazard. Then there’s the fact that a fireplace is not automatic: you have to wake up in a cold house and start the fire. Improvements in technology have helped; new EPA rated wood fireplaces can be up to 75 percent efficient, and burning wood can be automatic if you use a pellet stove with a feeder that allows the fire to burn continuously.
But even with all of the improvements, heating with wood alone is not a realistic option for the majority of homes. With regulated no burn “Spare the Air” days and the large amount of labor required, relying on wood as a primary fuel is not very practical. Even if you can use wood for space heating, it’s pretty darn hard to meet your hot water demands with a wood stove alone. Another consideration is the fact that in states like California, to get a mortgage on a house you must have an automatic heat source with safety controls, which for the most part rules out wood as a sole source of heat.
If you’ve ever visited or lived in a city that has issues with temperature inversions, like Salt Lake City, Denver, or Los Angeles, you probably know that when it’s cold outside and lots of people are burning wood, you get smog. Whether you believe in climate change or not, it’s hard to deny the human contribution to air pollution when you drive from a place with clear mountain air through brown haze into a basin filled with smog from wood-burning fireplaces.
FOSSIL FUELS: FINITE RESOURCES THAT CAUSE BIG PROBLEMS
Most of the US has moved on from burning wood. In the Northeast, fuel oil and boilers are king. Fuel oil has its share of problems: it’s fossil fuel based, messy to deal with, and is subject to seasonal price fluctuations. Efficiency is a concern, especially with older boilers, which are only around 56 percent efficient. In rural areas where there is less infrastructure for other options, many people use propane, another fossil fuel.
In the West and many other parts of the country, natural gas is the fuel of choice. Natural gas has been used in buildings for many years. It’s abundant, it burns pretty clean, and the appliances that use it are very reliable. It has allowed us to automate water and central heating using systems that require little to no attention for years. As a low cost, reliable option for so many applications, it’s no surprise that gas is such a popular option across the country.
Looking forward, however, there are a number of reasons to question the idea that natural gas is the best fuel for the future. First off, like oil, natural gas is a fossil fuel, which means it’s a limited resource. Its price fluctuates along with the cost of crude oil. Not to mention the fact that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a greenhouse-gas, which means that it traps heat in the atmosphere, making the surface of the Earth warmer. In fact, methane on a short-term timescale, traps 25 to 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
Natural gas transmission depends on a vast underground network of pipes and storage facilities, many of which are aging and starting to fail. Studies indicate 46 percent of our natural gas transmission pipelines were built in the 1950s and 1960s. These pipes are now approaching their life expectancy and leaks are common. It’s estimated that as much as 30 percent of the natural gas we produce never makes it to the end user, due to leaks in the distribution system.
Natural gas releases have a huge impact on our planet. In late 2015, a leak at the Southern California Gas Aliso Canyon underground storage facility was discovered. The gas spewed into the atmosphere out of control for weeks. It took 112 days to contain the leak and stop the emissions. It has been estimated that during this period the facility released 109,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, which is more greenhouse-gas than 440,000 cars emit in one year. So far, this represents the worst man-made greenhouse-gas disaster in US history.
Natural gas is also an extremely volatile fuel. In September of 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric Pipeline in San Bruno, California exploded during routine testing. The explosion leveled 35 homes, damaged many more, and eight lives were lost. It was later determined that this tragedy could have been avoided if safety procedures hadn’t been reduced in order to save money. There is no question there’s risks when you deliver a volatile fuel through aging pipelines. The real question is, how long will it be until we see another disaster such as San Bruno or Aliso Canyon?
When we use natural gas, or any other combustible fuel, we are relying on fire to create heat. When you burn anything, there are dangerous byproducts. In residential situations, one of the most dangerous byproducts is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that produces symptoms that are very similar to the flu. Undetected, it causes drowsiness often causing victims to fall asleep and never wake up again. An unsuspecting plumber can cause a carbon monoxide issue by simply installing the wrong size flue. Furnaces and water heaters can be damaged during shipping and cause carbon monoxide issues. There are a whole host of situations that can lead to carbon monoxide problems. This is part of the reason carbon monoxide detectors are required by code in California.
THE ALTERNATIVE: RENEWABLY PRODUCED ELECTRICITY
So we’ve identified the problems inherent in burning things to heat our homes and make hot water, but what choice do we have? It turns out the answer is pretty simple and already a part of everyday life: electricity. We can use the energy in electricity to provide all of the heating and hot water needs in our buildings, without combustion, using time-tested technology.
One way or another, electricity is the energy source of the future, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In part, this has been due to the high cost of using electricity to heat water and homes, and the fact that historically, producing electricity (usually using coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear power plants) hasn’t been very clean.
However, the electric grid in places like California is significantly cleaner today than it was just a few short years ago. Using renewable energy, California is now ahead of climate goals that were thought to be unachievable when they were enacted. Large amounts of clean energy are being fed into California’s electrical grid, not just from residential rooftop solar but from large “utility scale” solar and wind farms. As more and more of this clean electricity enters the grid, it’s obvious that this should be our fuel of choice for space heating and water heating in buildings.
There are some hurdles to switching from a fossil fuel economy to electricity. Some of the challenges are actually embedded in our building codes. When California’s energy codes were written, electricity generated from fossil fuel plants was not very clean and it was expensive. When legislators wrote the energy codes they favored natural gas, as it was the best option at the time. As things have changed, building codes haven’t kept up. In California, the ability to switch fuel from natural gas to electricity has been limited by an outdated regulation called the “three-prong-test”. Effectively, the cost considerations in this metric strongly discourage switching from natural gas to electric heating, even when most people agree it makes sense. Efficiency First California has been working with the National Resource Defense Council and the Sierra club to help change this restrictive legislation. We are starting to see some progress on the policy side but we still have a long way to go.
Advances in technology also favor electricity, particularly when you consider efficiency. We can now heat our buildings and make hot water with heat pumps, which are often 200-300 percent efficient. Next up are heat pump clothes dryers which don’t require a vent to the outside, and induction cooktops, all of which are more efficient than our current electric appliances. In almost every case, modern electric appliances are more efficient than their gas counterparts. And electric appliances are significantly safer than combustion-based alternatives.
When you eliminate combustion (fire), carbon monoxide and other by-products are completely eliminated, gone, no longer a concern. This alone should be enough of a motivator to pursue an all-electric future.
When we switch to electric appliances, especially those that utilize heat pump technology, we are selecting the safest and most efficient option. As the grid becomes cleaner by incorporating more and more renewable sources to produce electricity, the choice becomes even more clear. If efficiency and safety are the goal, the path is obvious. Electricity is the future fuel for buildings and we should support the transition to this clean energy future.
Efficiency First California
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