Guest Commentaries

Guest commentary: Dumping natural gas: not as simple as it sounds

Bellingham climate plan risks 'net harm'
April 27, 2022 at 4:45 a.m.
Updated April 27, 2022 at 1:14 p.m.

By Abe Jacobson

On April 11, 2022, the Bellingham City Council received a preliminary outline of the Mayor's proposed Climate Action Plan. 

Some of the plan is good: Encouraging “low-carbon transportation,” energy efficiency and climate adaptation. Electric buses, electric vehicle charging stations and physically protected bike/e-bike lanes are a no-brainer, yielding immediate reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) production. I emphasize physically protected bike/e-bike lanes, not just a daub of paint on the tarmac. In the Netherlands, as well as Copenhagen, much of their commute is carbon-free, in protected lanes.

But then the plan goes dubious: Electrification of buildings' space heating and water heating, and discouraging of gas connections to new construction. As a physicist, I am troubled by how marginal is the CO2 reduction from such a move. (Marginal is the best scenario; think, net harm.) 

First, if heating (both space and water) and air-conditioning could be done purely by heat-pump, without “backup” resistive elements, then electrification might make sense. In terms of heat moved per energy invested, heat pumps are winners. But, here's the rub: Heat pumps in our climate using heat exchange with ambient outdoor air are marginal for the coldest few months of this year. Can anyone forget the cold of December/January this past winter? In such weather, the exchange-to-air heat pump must revert to running an electric current through resistive heating elements. Then the so-called “heat pump" is more like a wasteful electric baseboard heater. Bad for the planet, and bad for your household budget. 

One fix would be to use underground heat exchange, rather than ambient air. For example, a home using a heat pump would also have a large, deeply-buried heat exchanger accessing the relatively stable moderate temperatures (~50 F or so) of ground a few feet below the frost line. The heat pump would be able to continue even in winter as a true heat pump with such an underground system. But this engineering solution is not priced into standard economics of heat pumps, and represents a very large capital expense. 

Second, the zeal to electrify justifies itself because “we” (i.e., Bellingham) are lucky enough to be located near abundant hydroelectricity, and virtuous enough to buy substantial wind and solar bulk electricity. But this justification is actually irrelevant. No matter how lucky/virtuous Washington state is, we are still part of the Western area power grid: Power from “our” in-state, non-carbon sources is freely mixed into the Western grid, along with power from coal and natural gas everywhere in the grid. At present about 80% of the Western grid's power generation is from burning hydrocarbons, and only about 20% is from non-carbon sources. While that is likely to improve somewhat in the coming decades, such improvement will be slow, and it will be at least a half-century before the Western area grid is basically carbon-free. 

For the recent winter, a heat pump would frequently rely on resistive backup during four months of winter. During that period, 80% of the electrical energy comes from a carbon-burning power plant belching carbon dioxide (and, if coal, plenty of mercury too) into the atmosphere. Worse, the carbon-belcher is using only 33-38% of the thermal energy of combustion, sending roughly two-thirds of the energy up the stack. 

By comparison, if I burn natural gas in my own home in easily available 95% efficient furnaces or boilers, then I'm losing only 5% of the chemical energy, which is much better than losing two-thirds as in the power plant. 

Put another way, by burning natural gas at 95% efficiency in my Bellingham home this year rather than electrifying, I'm sparing the atmosphere a lot of carbon. By comparison, the home-electrification route would actually result in more carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere, until the entire Western grid is substantially carbon-free.

Who knew?

Another reason to be cautious about getting rid of gas hookups is that west of the Cascades, winter gale winds frequently take down power lines, resulting in several power outages per winter at my home, for example. Fortunately for us, during those blackouts we turn on our Jotul gas-burning radiant “fireplace”  for warmth. We can light the gas stovetop to cook. Winter gales are a fact of life here. This past winter, some areas of our county experienced a week-long electric outage. Without a backup, that means burst pipes and major damage, and people displaced from their homes into emergency shelters.

By the way, the above comments are from a long-time Sierra Club member, and a monthly donor to two local environmental organizations (STAND and RE-Sources.) My views are my own, but I think you get the point that I am not a shill of the Koch brothers. My priority is just to decarbonize, and the comments made above are in that spirit. 

Abe Jacobson of Bellingham (Ph.D., Physics) is a guest scientist at University of Washington’s Earth and Space Sciences Department who worked for 31 years for the University of California’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. He served on the Board of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. The views here are his own.

This commentary was updated to correct the spelling of the author's name.

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