The Electric House of the Future Was Built in 1905

via. Hillman Residence via Bensonwood

We have long debated whether one should cook, heat or make hot water with gas or electricity. I used to think that it was better to burn gas directly under food or water instead of burning coal far away to boil water to make electricity to boil water. But over the years, much has changed, and the green consensus is that electricity is the future.

According to a neat article by Rick Reynolds on the Bensonwood website, it was the future back in 1905 when Harry W. Hillman of General Electric built an all-electric home in a suburb of Schenectady, New York, full of nice homes for GE execs. Reynolds writes:

Known as the house without a kitchen chimney, General Electric’s Harry W. Hillman built the experimental demonstration home in 1905 to prove that electricity, alone, could power all the energy requirements of houses. At the time, rudimentary, single-circuit wiring permitted only basic lighting and a primitive appliance (if you first unscrewed the bulb), and relegated heating and cooking to the combustion of coal and wood. Hillman’s all-electric home with two circuits did it all.

According to Don Rittner in the Times Union, Hillman used one circuit for lights, and the other for heating and cooking. he had "the novel idea of putting outlets in all rooms so electrical devices could be plugged into them."
A 1906 issue of House and Garden described it as "the first house ever built representing the complete application of electricity to the uses of domestic life." Steve Gdula writes in The Warmest Room in the house:

"The Hillman Residence, with its strange and exciting switches, knobs and gadgets, was part funhouse, part laboratory, and part time-travel opportunity for the general public." It had an Electrical Four Combination Cereal Cooker to make breakfast and a Cooking and Baking Unit with Seven Regulatory Switches.

Sounds much like a smart home today, just add a Juiceroo.

Live better electrically

Live better electrically/Promo image

Back at Bensonwood, Rick Reynolds lists a lot of the reasons that the consensus has shifted to electric, some of which we have covered on TreeHugger before, noting popular "misperceptions". Some of the big ones:
Misperception # 1 At the end of the day, electric power costs more than fossil fuels, and cost ultimately drives consumer preferences.

Actually, this is not a misperception, it's true with all the fracking going on, gas is cheap. But Bensonwood builds really well-insulated houses, and Passive or Net Zero houses use very little energy to heat, so the actual amount of energy needed is much smaller. It can also be offset with increasingly affordable solar.

Misperception #6 Power outages and/or cloudy/windless days leave all-electric homeowners, especially those using renewable energy, vulnerable.

This is also sort of true; when we had a big blackout after an ice storm a few years ago, the gas stove and fireplace kept us warm. But in a well built, well-insulated house, the temperature can take days to drop or to rise out of comfort levels. The home acts as a thermal battery.

Then there is the big one, Misperception #7 Since 65% of electric power is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels, it’s a false argument to imply that all-electric house performance is carbon-free.

Again, it depends on where you live. In Ontario, Canada where I am, most of the power comes from water and nuclear. There are a few gas peaker plants, but I pay extra to Bullfrog Power to use renewables. Rick writes:

While this may be partially true today, the 65% of electrical energy currently generated by fossil fuels is rapidly being offset by renewable energy and nuclear energy. Moreover, solar and wind, with battery backup, can supply 100% of demand of the all-electric, high performance houses, going forward. Since only all-electric houses can be carbon-free, we need to lobby for and invest in a renewable-based energy grid.

Read about all the other misperceptions on Bensonwood.

Promo image. live better electrically

live better electrically/Promo image

Rick doesn't mention the other reason we like electricity over gas: no products of combustion in or around the house. Cooking with gas puts a lot of Nitrogen Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide into the air and most exhaust hoods do little to remove it.