ELECTRIC STOVES FOR THE CLIMATE
The following column by Alan Northcutt appeared in the May 26th edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald.
The many impacts of the climate crisis—from heatwaves to drought to floods—are caused by mankind’s combustion of fossil fuel, which has increased the heat content of the planet. Ironically, in industrialized nations, we almost never visualize this actual combustion—with the exception of seeing the flames of our gas cookstoves. Observing the flames of propane in my home stovetop, I realized immediately I must eliminate this symbol of fossil fuel’s damage to our planet.
How common are gas stoves? The most recent report of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA) found that in 2015, 63% of U.S. households used electricity for cooking, 33% used natural gas, and 5% used propane. Natural gas (fossil gas, methane) is typically delivered through gas hookups from utility companies, while propane (liquified petroleum gas, LPG) comes from outdoor tanks at individual residences.
How do gas stoves contribute to global warming? Approximately 13% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that produce climate change derive from residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. Cooking is a major source of emissions in these buildings through two mechanisms. First, when stoves burn natural gas or propane, the GHG carbon dioxide is produced. Relative to carbon dioxide, which has a global warming potential (GWP) of 1 on a 100-year time horizon, natural gas has a powerful GWP of 28, while propane has a lesser GWP of 4 to 10. Second, natural gas stoves, even when turned off, constantly leak unburned methane, a highly potent GHG, according to a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Science and Technology (January 2022). As a result, the climate warming impact of natural gas stoves in the U.S. is equal to that of 500,000 gas/diesel cars. To eliminate this source of climate warming, natural gas and propane cooking stoves must ultimately be replaced by electric stoves. The electric stoves emit no GHGs, although GHGs are released in the production of grid electricity. Thus, overcoming the contribution of buildings to the climate crisis may be viewed as two simultaneous challenges: electrifying everything (electric appliances only), and obtaining all electricity from clean, renewable sources. (Although this column focuses on stoves, all other appliances, including water heaters, will need to be electric as soon as possible.)
Do gas stoves have other hazards? Natural gas stoves may release nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to asthma, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and negative general cognitive function. Released particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) contributes to fatigue, memory disturbance, loss of concentration, nonfatal heart attacks, cardiac arrythmias, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease. Both natural gas and propane stoves may release carbon monoxide, which produces many neurological effects, including fatigue, confusion, coma and death. Natural gas and propane are a fire risk, with 4,300 natural gas home fires reported in 2016 by the National Fire Protection Association. Finally, both may cause suffocation, and are explosive, especially if warmed over 120 degrees F.
How can gas stoves be eliminated? The most economical method is mandating that all new construction of residential and commercial buildings be all-electric, with no gas hookups. But for older structures containing these gas appliances, retrofitting will be required. Thus, in my home the gas stovetop was removed, gas line occluded, 220V. electric cable routed, electric stovetop positioned, stove hard wired, and stove façade fashioned. The approximate costs were: Whirlpool electric stovetop $900, electrician $1000, and handyman $250. Although costs will vary for each home, these expenses illustrate the advantage of banning gas hookups during original construction. (If it is not possible to replace a gas stove, Physicians for Social Responsibility recommend the following steps: install a carbon monoxide detector, run an exhaust hood while cooking, open a window while cooking, and cook on the back burners.)
Are there disadvantages of electric stoves? First, the traditional complaint from some chefs is that temperature can be controlled more accurately and rapidly with gas stoves. However, the chefs in my home do not concur with this complaint. Second, the glass of electric stovetops is prone to fractures from physical or temperature stress. Replacement of cracked glass is recommended to avoid electrical shock.
Are gas hookups being banned? New York City, and over 50 cities in California, are phasing in bans on gas hookups in new buildings. In response, 20 states, including Texas, Alabama and Florida have passed preemption laws to prevent municipalities from passing these measures. Finally, New York state and Washington state are attempting to pass statewide laws banning such natural gas infrastructure in new construction.
What is our inspiration to fight back? McLennan County is feeling the impacts of the climate crisis right now. In 2018, Waco experienced its highest recorded temperature of 114 degrees F. In 2021, FEMA ranked the County at “high risk” for drought, river flooding and lightning. Five days ago (May 17), the entire county was in drought, from severe to exceptional. Lake Waco is 5.3 feet below normal levels, nearing the point for mandatory conservation measures.
And this is just the beginning, as our current 1.2 degree C above pre-industrial may rise to 4 or 5C this century. But there is much we can do to fight the climate crisis. We can convert our cooking stoves, and all home appliances, from fossil fuels to electricity, especially during retirement of old equipment. Besides lightening our carbon footprint and improving our indoor air quality and health, I can attest to the joy of extinguishing a fossil fuel flame emblematic of our planet’s suffering.