Is Your Gas Stove Destroying the Planet?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Of the natural gas burned in American homes, just 2.8% is used for cooking, according to a 2015 survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Residential natural-gas use in turn makes up just 15% of total U.S. consumption, a percentage that has fallen over the past decade as (1) natural gas passed coal to become the country’s main power-plant fuel and (2) residential gas use held more or less steady, as it has since the mid-1970s.
Home kitchens thus account for about 0.4% of U.S. natural gas use. Burning natural gas was responsible for an estimated 36% of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions in 2020, so residential natural-gas cooking’s share of those emissions comes in at less than 0.2%. That’s not a lot!
Gas cooking does, however, seem likely to be the biggest obstacle to the effort to electrify the American home in the name of slowing climate change.
Why’s that? Mainly because people (myself included) like cooking with gas! It’s one of the few energy uses that inspires brand loyalty to the fuel consumed. A 2019 survey by E Source, a utility-consulting firm spun off from the decarbonization-focused Rocky Mountain Institute, found that only 21% of those with gas cooking equipment would consider replacing it with electric.
Americans appear to be much less attached to their natural-gas space heaters and water heaters. Because these heaters are responsible for more than 90% of home natural gas use, replacing them with electric heaters and heat pumps really could have a significant impact on global warming. It would also leave little economic rationale for maintaining a vast distribution network to pipe natural gas into homes just for cooking. For gas utilities fretting about the future, gas stoves are thus a wedge issue to galvanize opposition to the electrification of everything else.
How Gas Went From Clean to Dirty
Until quite recently, natural gas was seen mainly as an ally in the fight against climate change. It was the cleaner-burning, lower-carbon transition fuel that could keep the economy running as coal and oil faded but before renewables-generated electricity and perhaps hydrogen were ready to take over.
To some extent this is exactly what has happened. The transition from coal to gas in electric power generation has been the single biggest cause of the 15% drop in estimated U.S. C02 emissions since 2007. Meanwhile, gas appliances may actually produce lower C02 emissions than electric ones right now in much of the country, because 60% of U.S. electricity is still generated by burning gas and coal, and gas-fired power plants are less efficient at converting fuel into energy than gas-powered home heaters are.
This last advantage will disappear as the share of electricity generated by emission-free wind and solar continues to grow. Research in recent years has also revealed much leakage of methane — the main component of natural gas and a more potent, albeit shorter-lived, greenhouse gas than C02 — from drilling operations, distribution networks and home uses, tarnishing natural gas’s reputation as a clean fuel. Plus, it’s in the nature of a “transition fuel” that some people will immediately start looking to transition away from it.
One of the first big steps in this direction came in the gas-rich Netherlands, where in 2018 the government announced plans to rapidly phase out natural gas production and use. In the U.S. the action has so far been more modest and mainly local, with the city of Berkeley, California, banning gas hookups in July 2019 for most new buildings, and several other heavily Democratic cities following suit or considering it. In response, some majority-Republican state legislatures have passed laws banning such local bans.
Who Cooks With Gas
The battle over gas stoves may not play out along standard blue-state, red-state lines, though. About 35% of U.S. homes used natural gas for cooking in 2019, according to the Census Bureau’s biennial American Housing Survey. While the survey’s geographical coverage is too spotty to allow for definitive pronouncements about regional differences, its breakdown for the 15 biggest metropolitan areas shows a lot more gas cooking going on in blue states than in red or purple ones.
Much of this is historical contingency. The neighboring Los Angeles and Riverside metropolitan areas have the highest share of natural gas cooking in part because Southern California is riddled with giant oil fields that produced natural gas as an at-first-useless byproduct. Older cities in the East and Midwest have a lot of housing stock that predates the post-World War II triumph of the electric stove. The South has far more all-electric homes than anywhere else in the country because the housing stock is newer and milder winter temperatures made electric heat pumps a more economical choice than natural-gas furnaces (advances in heat-pump technology are starting to make them a viable alternative in colder climes as well, but that’s a recent development).
Still, consumer preferences are a factor too. I haven’t found data to back this up, but my impression from personal experience is that affluent, educated suburbanites are the people most likely to have large, expensive gas ranges. They’re also becoming more likely to vote Democratic, meaning that the people most emotionally attached to gas cooking have been voting for the politicians most likely to ban gas hookups. It will be fascinating to see how this sorts itself out in coming years. Will people change their cooking preferences to match their political allegiances, or the other way around?
Environmental groups are doing what they can to sour their affluent liberal constituencies on gas. The Rocky Mountain Institute, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Mothers Out Front and the Sierra Club put out a report last year on the dangers of indoor air pollution from gas cooking. Appearing on TBS’s “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” this month, lead author Brady Seals of RMI summed up: “Gas stoves emit a lot of the same pollutants that come from your car tailpipe.” She also put in a plug for electric induction stoves: “It’s sort of like the Tesla of cooking, because you’re boiling water in half the time.”
Mixed Signals From Utilities
In response to that report, the American Gas Association, which represents gas utilities, put out a fact sheet asserting that, among other things, “switching to electrical appliances is not a useful strategy to address indoor air quality because the emissions of concern are dominated by the smoke and grease that comes from cooking, regardless of the energy source.” My own experience with burning things in the kitchen leads me to believe that there is truth to this, although certain indoor pollutants — nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde — are in fact linked mainly to gas cooking.
While the AGA has been vociferous in its opposition to the home-electrification movement, not all of its members are so committed. A recent Wall Street Journal article on the local gas-hookup bans featured an eyebrow-raising quote from Jan Berman, director of energy strategy and innovation at Northern California’s PG&E Corp.: “We welcome the opportunity to avoid investments in new gas assets that might later prove to be underutilized as decarbonization efforts progress here in California.”
The E in PG&E stands for electric, and for utilities like it that deliver both electricity and gas, home electrification isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, an all-electric network might be a lot easier to manage. Southern California Gas, the Sempra Energy division that is the nation’s largest gas utility, reported spending nearly three times as much on operations and maintenance in 2020 as on buying natural gas. By contrast, electric utility Southern California Edison, a division of Edison International, spent about a third less on operations and maintenance than on power and fuel.
This difference doesn’t really have an effect on the companies’ bottom lines, since regulators allow them to pass both fuel and maintenance costs on to consumers. But with safety demands on gas utilities being ratcheted up every time there’s a major explosion or leak, and residential gas demand flat even before the new electrification push, it does seem conceivable that the time will come when society is no longer willing to pay the cost of maintaining vast urban networks of aging pipes filled with explosive gas.
Then again, SoCalGas is hoping we’ll just fill them with another explosive gas. The company has proposed experimenting with conveying hydrogen through its pipes, as well as building an “H2 Hydrogen Home” with an electrolyzer to convert solar energy into hydrogen, a fuel cell to convert the hydrogen back to electricity and appliances that run on a blend of hydrogen and natural gas. Hydrogen emits water when burned, not greenhouse gases, and holds promise as a way to store power for long periods. It will also require stronger pipes and more careful monitoring than natural gas to prevent leaks and explosions. Regulators seem unsure as to whether the investment would be worthwhile.
Cooking With Something Other Than Natural Gas
So hydrogen cooking may or may not be an option in the future. A simpler alternative for those committed to cooking over flames could be the propane canisters used in gas grills and inside nearly six million American homes, although that will be problematic in cities such as New York where fire codes ban their use in most buildings, and would certainly be less convenient than piped natural gas.
The bigger question may be whether gas really does cook better, or whether consumer loyalty to it is based mainly on less-tangible factors. Electric ranges reached their peak market share in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent renaissance of gas was probably at least partly a backlash against electric’s suburban-subdivision ubiquity.
Gas stoves were also closely identified with the American culinary renaissance that began in the 1960s. Julia Child cooked with gas, and while her good friend James Beard did not, it was her example that has been followed by just about every television chef since. Mississippi-based Viking Range Corp. built its first stove in 1986, and before long Vikings and similar luxury gas stoves became must-haves for well-off foodies.
I’ve left restaurants out of this account so far, but gas has of course long been the default in professional kitchens. Going by the EIA’s most recent survey of energy consumption in commercial buildings, they use more than four times as much natural gas as home kitchens. (Put commercial and residential cooking together and it adds up to just over 2% of U.S. natural gas consumption.)
If the pros use gas it must be better, right? Well … when Consumer Reports looked through its range reviews in 2019, it concluded that, “in most cases, electric ranges outperform their gas counterparts.” Electric stovetops were better than gas for both high-heat and low-heat cooking, while electric ovens were better for broiling and gas ones better for baking. Not exactly what you’d expect!
The most obvious strength of gas burners is that they respond instantaneously when you adjust the heat, a quality not evaluated in that particular Consumer Reports article. The article also ignored “the Tesla of cooking,” the induction stove, because its market share remains tiny. But induction stoves, which work by transferring energy directly to cookware via a magnetic field, offer instantaneous response too. “No other cooking technology that we’ve tested is faster than the fastest induction elements,” Consumer Reports concluded elsewhere. Induction also uses less energy than other cooking technologies.
Cooking on an induction stove, which I’ve done a few times, is disconcerting at first. The “burners” don’t get hot, and while the responsiveness is great you don’t get the same visual cues as with gas. Still, I’m pretty sure my next stove will be induction. Climate change and cooking quality are secondary considerations: I have a penchant for leaving burners on and forgetting about it that certainly isn’t going to get better as I get older, and with an induction stove that’s far less likely to lead to disaster.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.