October 20th, 2020 by Joe Wachunas
In the 1950s, when nuclear energy was booming and hydroelectric dams were laying across rivers like tourniquets, the all-electric home became a thing. It didn’t matter that the electric heating technologies of the time were vastly inefficient. The promise of electricity that was “too cheap to meter” meant that people could use it to their heart’s delight.
But that shiny, inefficient dream, like so many dreams of infinite resources, gradually disappeared. Nuclear and hydro energy both revealed themselves to have large side effects (radioactive waste and salmon destruction, respectively), and burning coal became an increasingly large source of our electricity supply. Many began to ask why we would burn coal, capture 30 percent of its embodied energy, ship the electrons thousands of miles, and then use them inefficiently in homes, when we could simply burn a fossil fuel directly in our furnaces. Natural gas thus became the efficient home heating source of choice, and when paired with things like on demand water heating, it felt like progress.
But in the last decade-plus, significant trends made the all-electric home the clean, high-performance choice of the future. Electricity got renewable, emissions started falling, and wind and solar became cheaper and grew faster than in our wildest dreams.
The other positive trend was that inefficient electric heating technologies (think about the electric resistance heater in which lots of electrons are smushed together to make heat) were replaced by vastly more efficient technologies like heat pumps (which move heat rather than creating it) and induction stoves.
Meanwhile, natural gas production got dirtier, with fracking taking over our midwestern landscapes and making our water flammable. Studies revealed that emissions from methane leaks from pipelines were being underreported, calling into question the idea that natural gas is much cleaner than coal from a greenhouse gas emission standpoint.
A movement is born
Combine these trends, and in the last 10 years, the “electrify everything“ movement was born. Normal folks started replacing gas appliances with efficient, all-electric ones, and soon communities and cities were following suit. A short 15 months ago, Berkeley, California launched the city-led electrification movement by (essentially) banning gas in all new construction. Then, in a blink of an eye, over 35 cities across California and the United States followed Berkeley’s lead.
The benefits of the all-electric home
Thus, we find ourselves at an inflection point where the all-electric home seems poised to become the default clean energy abode of the future. And there are many additional benefits to all-electric homes for both consumers and builders that make reasons for fuel switching even more compelling.
Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality is an important and often overlooked health consideration. On the West Coast, we’re learning to stay inside during days when increasingly hazardous mega-fires send particulate counts to unhealthy levels. But burning gas in our homes without adequate ventilation (something not required on stoves in the US) has significant consequences for the air we breathe most of the day. One startling illustration of this problem, recently released in a Rocky Mountain Institute study, is that children in a home with a gas stove have a 24–42 percent increased risk of having asthma. All-electric induction stoves (which even professional chefs love) completely avoid that risk, cooking food better than gas without indoor air pollution.
Cost of Operation
The all-electric appliances of today, from heat pumps to induction stoves, have fallen in cost as the technologies have scaled. In my region, a heat pump water heater, which used to cost $1200 and up, is now on sale (with installation price included!) for $799, which is as cheap if not cheaper than any other type of water heater. There are now induction stoves for sale under $1000. Sticker prices, though still generally a little higher than their gas counterparts, are going in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the cost to operate these appliances is consistently significantly lower. Heat pumps generally use energy 3–5× more efficiently than old electric and natural gas options. The yellow EPA Energy Guide stickers that come attached to these devices give an idea of the incredible savings that await consumers who use these efficient technologies.
As an added bonus, all-electric homes don’t have to pay the monthly connection fee simply to be tied into natural gas infrastructure. In my region, this costs $12 or $13 a month, meaning modest annual savings for my family.
All-electric technologies offer key performance advantages as well. They offer more control and precision than their clunky gas counterparts (think induction stoves’ temperature control) and are, in general, quieter. Finally, electric technologies offer many smart features, like wifi-enabled controls, which can be managed remotely. My local utility has a pilot in which it pays households to access their heat pump water heaters to help balance the grid during peak electrical demand.
All-electric homes also have the possibility of being powered by renewable energy, making them the only feasible path to zero carbon, in buildings, at our disposal. Whether it’s solar panels on a rooftop, community solar in a farm field, or wind turbines in the ocean, clean electricity can power all of these efficient appliances today. Natural gas companies talk about the possibility of renewable natural gas (RNG), but many energy experts who dive into this topic see RNG as, at best, a far-off, uncertain possibility. At worst, it’s a red herring meant to greenwash consumers into sticking with a dirty fuel (a subject of a future article).
Top 4 technologies of the electrified home
I’ve written about many of these technologies in depth in other articles (see links above). In short, they provide all the heating, cooking, and cooling essential to any home, at a fraction of the cost. They allow builders and homeowners to leave behind methane in the path to cleaner homes.
Common questions about the all-electric home
I’ll close this article with answers to a couple common questions about the all-electric home.
How do the warranties and reliability of these products stack up against their gas counterparts?
As the chart below indicates, heat pump water heaters come with longer warranties than their gas counterparts, and slightly shorter than old all-electric water heaters.
Gas furnaces do tend to last a little longer, and require slightly fewer repairs, according to extensive surveys by Consumer Reports. The caveat is that with a gas furnace many people still also buy a separate air conditioner, meaning another appliance that will one day need repairs. With heat pumps, you get heating and cooling in one machine.
Can heat pumps work in cold climates?
Yes. This good article tackles this question in depth. Every major manufacturer offers cold-climate ductless heat pumps, which are able to provide at least 80–85% of their heating capacity (without electric resistance backup) in temperatures as low as 5°F. They are still super efficient in colder climates.
Will I be able to find the product I’m looking for?
Yes. When it comes to heat pumps and induction stoves, all major appliance manufacturers make them, so you can choose your favorite brand when converting to electric.
The new and improved, efficient, high-performance, climate change-fighting, all-electric home is coming. In many places it is already here. Builders and homeowners should future proof their abodes with these technologies in order to better their lives and communities, and in order to help address the challenge of our time with zero carbon building solutions. Soon, the idea of piping and burning fossil fuels in our homes will feel as old fashioned as when my grandfather used to shovel coal into his basement furnace. The combination of renewable electricity and all-electric technologies will make burning fossil fuels in our homes an anachronism of a bygone age.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.