Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November 2020
Despite the federal government’s promise of a ‘gas-fired recovery’ from the COVID-19 recession, the future of natural gas in Australia is far from assured. The industry faces serious economic and environmental challenges.
Firstly, gas is increasingly expensive. And, secondly, it is a fossil fuel. It is cleaner than coal, but it is still responsible for about 19 per cent of Australia’s emissions.
Australia simply must use less gas over time. We are already seeing this in the power sector, where renewable energy is growing and gas use is declining. And though it is often forgotten, the humble gas stove may need to change too. This means that over time almost half of all NSW households will need to find cleaner and smarter ways to cook, heat water and warm their homes in winter.
Electricity might well be the answer. Within a handful of years, electricity will provide cleaner energy for households than gas. Even better, switching to electricity can save you money. A new NSW house built today with efficient electric rather than gas appliances will save the owner about $400 per year, and pay back the higher cost of the appliances in about seven years. If that same house has solar panels on the roof, the savings would be bigger still.
If you’re not looking to move into or build a new home, the story is more complicated. We don’t recommend ripping out working gas appliances, but if they break you should consider an efficient electric replacement.
A major challenge to switching to electricity is that people love cooking with gas. It is much easier and quicker than an old-fashioned electric stove. But a dislike of electric stoves need not stop you from switching off gas. Modern electric ‘induction’ stoves are faster and more efficient than even gas stoves. They don’t work like traditional electric stoves, which run electricity through a coil.
Those cooktops take forever to heat up and even longer to cool down. Instead, induction stoves work by creating rapid electromagnetic vibrations. Stainless steel and cast-iron cookware is magnetic, and so it vibrates in response to the induction stove, creating heat – not on the cooktop, but within the cookware itself. This is both quicker and safer. It is easy to test whether your cookware will work on an induction stove – if a fridge magnet sticks to it, you’re induction ready.
Gas hot water and space heaters can be replaced with efficient electric appliances too. A heat pump extracts warmth from the air to heat water. It runs on electricity and uses about one-quarter of the energy of a gas water heater or a traditional electric hot-water tank. Heat pumps work best during the middle of the day when the air is warmer – which is right when rooftop solar panels are pumping out the power. Heating your home in winter is even easier – if you have a reverse-cycle air-conditioner, just turn it on and press ‘heat’. Reverse-cycle systems are also very efficient, using about one-third of the energy of a gas heater.
The economic and environmental benefits justify building new NSW homes without gas connections. The simplest way to do this is for the government to require new homes to be all-electric. But even if the government doesn’t do this, home builders and home buyers should stop insisting on homes with gas, and instead insist on homes with high-quality electric appliances.
Electricity is not the only way to clean up household energy use.
Gas companies are investigating low-emissions replacements for gas, such as methane made from organic waste, or hydrogen made using renewable electricity. These options may well find their place, but they will almost certainly cost more than natural gas does today. Going all-electric is the no-regrets option, offering lower emissions at an affordable cost today.
NSW home buyers shouldn’t be concerned if they find a house they love, but it doesn’t have a gas connection. This does not lead to a life of frustrating cooking, expensive hot water, and miserable cold winters. Homes with efficient electric appliances – and ideally some solar panels too – will give NSW residents a comfortable, affordable, and renewable future.