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Getting gas out of buildings is critical for climate action, but the recipe isn’t easy

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Getting gas out of buildings is critical for climate action, but the recipe isn’t easy

Jul 07, 2022 | 12:03 am ET
By Ivy Main
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Getting gas out of buildings is critical for climate action, but the recipe isn’t easy
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A gas ring on a domestic stove powered by natural gas (Photo Illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the surest way to make friends with guys was to feed them homemade cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchenette tucked into the hallway of my coed dorm. The aroma of chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven reliably drew a crowd.

One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and flour.

Instead of being appreciative, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It’s not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn’t thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.

I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.

Cookies are practically health food compared to other things we consume without really understanding the dangers.

It’s not just food. Plastic packaging, chemical additives, PFAS, phthalates and numerous other chemicals enter our homes and bodies without our conscious acquiescence, causing havoc for ourselves, our children and the rest of life on earth. It’s hard to know the risks, harder still to avoid them. So maybe you carry reusable bags and water bottles, buy organic if you can, and otherwise, try not to think too hard about it.

Where ignorance is bliss—or at any rate, a state of mind sufficient to keep you from a complete mental breakdown — you could be excused for feeling ‘tis folly to be wise. Why not just eat the cookies?

Well, because sometimes reading the ingredients can make a difference. Public pressure has been the major driver of government action on climate, particularly in decarbonizing the electric sector. People saw the recipe for their power supply and recoiled at all that fossil fuel. Short of installing solar panels on their rooftops, individuals in most states have little control over their source of electricity. It was a collective outcry that led to nearly half of all states setting carbon-free electricity targets. 

It seems odd, then, that we have not seen the same outcry when it comes to fossil fuel use in buildings, including natural gas in homes. As our electricity gets cleaner, buildings must become all-electric on the way to a fully decarbonized energy economy.  

Turns out, that’s a tall order. About 48 percent of American homes use natural gas for heating, and many also have gas appliances like stoves and hot water heaters. Starting in 2019, a few cities started banning new gas connections in an effort to speed the transition to all-electric homes. But in response, the gas industry persuaded legislatures in 20 states to prohibit localities from enacting such bans. (An industry effort to “ban the bans” in Virginia failed mainly because no localities have tried to go that route.)

For now at least, the industry seems to have public sentiment on its side. Natural gas is truly the chocolate-chip cookie of fossil fuels: it heats the air reliably, chefs love it and it’s lower in calories—I mean, carbon—than coal. Even the name sounds benign. What can be wrong with something “natural?” 

Disillusionment sets in only when you read the recipe. (“First, frack one well…”) Understanding the harmfulness of the ingredients is the key to getting people to insist on all-electric homes and businesses. The primary component of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2. Methane leaking from wellheads, pipelines, compressor stations and storage facilities contributes alarmingly to climate change. Older cities are riddled with leaking distribution pipelines running through neighborhoods, especially those housing low-income and non-White residents. Occasionally, they explode. 

Those beloved gas stoves leak methane even when turned off, and burning gas in buildings causes high levels of indoor air pollution. Cooking with gas releases respiratory irritants, including nitrogen dioxide, ultrafine particulate matter (PM 2.5), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. The effect is particularly harmful to children, with studies showing children living in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to suffer from symptoms of asthma.

It used to be that gas outperformed electricity in buildings, but no longer. Recent advances in technology mean electric heat pumps provide heating and air conditioning efficiently and effectively even in very cold climates. Every gas appliance has an electric counterpart. Even for cooking, gas has met its match in electric induction stoves, which have been winning over chefs nationwide. In a few years, we will wonder why we ever allowed open flames in our kitchens.  

Cost and convenience also favor all-electric buildings. An electric heat pump instead of both a gas burner and electric air conditioning means only one system to maintain and one utility bill instead of two. 

The question isn’t why homeowners would give up gas, but why builders still include it. Clearly, no one is reading the recipe.

With so much gas infrastructure already in place, and so little public awareness of the dangers, getting the gas out of buildings will be a slow process. In Virginia, gas companies continue to propose pipeline projects that would actually increase supply, in the hopes of locking in new customers. This is, to use the technical term, nuts. Those pipelines will have to be abandoned within a couple of decades, not “just” because the climate crisis demands it, but because consumers won’t keep buying.

Certainly, it will take time for most people to grasp how harmful methane is and how superior the alternative is. Once consumers begin insisting on all-electric buildings, however, gas utilities will enter a death spiral as they are forced to raise prices for remaining customers, who will then switch to electricity, too. 

At that point, electrification of the building sector will be complete, and we will begin to close the cookbook on gas.