Should We Electrify Everything or Keep a Gas Backup?

Is getting rid of gas a good idea when the electrical system can fail?

Jasper in front of fireplace
Jasper in front of the fireplace.

Lloyd Alter

The photo above is of our late dog Jasper, who knew how to get through the great ice storm of 2013: he set himself down in front of the gas fireplace. As the Texas disaster continues and people have been freezing without electricity, my wife reminded me how wonderful it was to have hot food and hot water, prepared on her gas range, suggesting that perhaps this campaign to Electrify Everything isn't such a good idea and that maybe having alternative sources of energy has its benefits.

Texas is a tough example because it is ongoing. There was system failure at many levels, with the generating stations powered by natural gas, so that it all went down together. As Christopher Mims notes, it didn't have to be this way.

After hearing my wife's comments and others who are using this event as a justification for keeping natural gas, I asked Nate Adams, also known as Nate the House Whisperer, and a big proponent of #electrifyeverything, for his thoughts on relying on gas as a backup. He noted that it isn't necessarily safe or effective:

"Only the most basic gas appliances don’t need power. Gas stoves and ovens really shouldn’t be used [for heating] in outages; note the rash of carbon monoxide [CO] deaths in Texas. Ovens are allowed to make 800 ppm of CO which iirc [if I recall correctly] is a concentration that causes death in 2 hours. If locked in a kitchen to keep warm it can indeed kill. Happens almost every year in Cleveland. Gas fireplaces with open fronts pull 4 times as much heat out as they put into a house. If they have a fan that doesn’t work in outages either."

News reports from Texas describe people bringing grills and gas barbecues inside to keep warm and show images of people running all the burners on their stoves and leaving the oven door open, which is going to produce a lot more CO than cooking. A local fire department in Texas issued a statement saying "Never use a grill, oven, or stove to heat your home. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas that can kill you. Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, headaches, disorientation, nausea, and vomiting."

It is true that most gas furnaces and water heaters do not work without an electrical supply, and the kitchen exhaust fan over the stove doesn't work either. Hard-wired CO detectors might fail as well, though most have backup batteries for exactly this kind of circumstance. Adams writes a timely post on his website that a better idea would be:

Better houses

  • Tighter better-insulated homes lose heat more slowly, buying time before frozen pipes or abandoning the home. Retrofits will be key here as they are 98-99% of the market.
  • More efficient HVAC can reduce power consumption but still put out heat in emergencies. Normally it can deliver excellent comfort and air quality. This works best in tighter and more efficient homes. 

Here at Treehugger, we have noted that we can use our homes as a form energy storage so that if there are rolling blackouts used to limit demand, a home will stay warm for the time that the power is off. I wrote earlier also about how we should design for intermittency:

"It is time to get serious and demand radical building efficiency. To turn our homes and buildings into a form of thermal battery; you don’t have to fire up the heat or the AC at peak times because the temperature in them doesn’t change that fast. So a really efficient building can trim the peaks and troughs of our energy production as effectively as any other kind of battery." 

In the UK you can actually buy thermal batteries filled with phase change materials; Sunamp founder Andrew Bissell describes how his house can glide over a couple of hours.

Adams also recommends building a better grid with electricity batteries "for backup and grid services – they can blunt high prices on the grid, replace a generator for shorter outages, and move electricity from when it’s plentiful when the sun is out or the wind is blowing to dark and windless times." An electric car in the driveway could do much the same thing.

Texas is a special case; other jurisdictions can borrow a cup of power from their neighbors if they need it. Former Governor Rick Perry would rather have his constituents freeze in the dark. That's all the more reason that our homes should be designed so they can cope with this, because essentially you are on your own. This is the case, to a lesser degree, everywhere; as Adams concludes,

"We really can't expect the grid to weather circumstances so far outside of what it was designed for. There's a reason the grid is built at the current size - it balances cost with what's likely to happen. The grid would be unaffordable if we built it to withstand the toughest scenarios. So to some degree we need to prepare our buildings for multiple day outages in extreme circumstances, which we know how to do."

I will conclude with a quote of my own that I have used perhaps too often recently, but seems relevant (and was even turned into a poster by the Green Building Learning Zone gang).

Building poster

Green Building Learning Zone/ Lloyd Alter

"Every building should have a proven level of insulation, air tightness, and window quality so that people are comfortable in all kinds of weather, even when the power goes out. This is because our houses have become lifeboats, and leaks may well be fatal."