Are Gas Furnaces and Boilers the New Diesel Cars?

The age of diesel and gasoline cars is coming to an end. It’s time to do the same for fossil fuel warming.

It’s hard to convince anyone in North America of the evils of gas stoves (or kettles as they are called in Europe, where most people heat with hot water) when gas is so cheap and the industry has brainwashed us so well how clean it is. And it’s true that CO2 emissions are lower than any other fossil fuel.

Energy Information Agency / Public Domain, however, is still pumping out 117 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs of heat produced, and the US burned 4.78 quadrillion BTUs for heating, hot water and cooking in residential areas in 2016. That’s a lot of zeros and a lot of CO2. Gas stoves and boilers also last a long time. So if a change is to make sense, it has to be done soon.

Adrian Hiel writes from Brussels and asks: Are gas boilers the new diesel cars? He notes that thanks to the new Low Emission Zones (LEZ), his old diesel car is no longer allowed on the streets he lives on and wonders if the same measures need to be taken with gas appliances.

In the Netherlands, they have a clear deadline to phase out gas by 2050. According to our Dutch members, this has made talking to their citizens a lot easier and a little complicated. Gone are the discussions about simply trying to make current systems more efficient, and in their place there is a clean list of new and transformative options.

Basically, he calls for low-emission zones for buildings and cars. But as I discovered when I renovated my own house five years ago, you can’t just swap out a gas boiler for an electric heat pump without your energy bills going through the roof. He refers to a contribution by Jan Rosenow, who replaced his gas boiler with a heat pump and notes:

It is important to note that insulated installation of a heat pump is not advisable in existing and often inefficient homes. I’ve argued elsewhere to balance energy efficiency and heat decarburization to maximize carbon reduction and avoid oversized heating systems. For this reason, we invested in energy efficiency measures in addition to the heat pump in our Victorian house from the 1880s. We insulated the floor throughout, installed mostly triple or double glazing and insulated the attic.

CC BY 2.0.
My super efficient gas stove / Lloyd Alter

My super efficient gas stove / Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

It’s going to be expensive, which is why I didn’t. Instead, I bought the most efficient boiler I could find and got some new storm windows for the most leaky old windows. I now realize what a short-sighted decision that was, as I will now be “tied” to gas for the foreseeable future.

Back in Brussels, Adrian Hiel writes that we need a neighborhood or “wave renovation” approach to repair our houses, change our heating and create heating LEZs.

Heating LEZs and the wave of renovations complement each other. The installation of a heat pump or the construction of a district heating network for draughty and under-insulated houses is not resource-efficient. With a Neighborhood Approach to Renovation Wave, property owners can get the support they need to upgrade their buildings and then switch to a heat pump or other low-carbon heating option. The positive circle here is that the wave of renovations should also include the expansion of municipal energy programs to power heat pumps with local green energy and should make a significant local socio-economic contribution in addition to further reducing emissions.

The age of diesel and gasoline cars is coming to an end. It’s time to do the same for fossil fuel warming.

You can see this is being done for apartment buildings in cities like New York or Chicago, but the cost of repairing all of those low-quality single-family homes would be enormous. And would it make that much difference? Looking back at this graph for residential consumption, residential buildings now use more electricity for cooling than gas for heating.

Energy information agency / public domain

Meanwhile, the American grid is still 65 percent fossil-fueled and won’t switch off gas for a while if the Fracker can’t give the stuff away.

As architect Sheena Sharp noted, the electricity that enters our home can become cleaner over time. Where we both live in Ontario, coal is no longer burned and only a little gas is burned in peaker plants. So a first step could be to ban all installation of new gas boilers or stoves in new homes.

But just like we said switching all of our cars to electric doesn’t solve some of the fundamental problems with cars, the fact remains that switching all of our stoves to electric heat pumps doesn’t solve the bigger problems of density and urban design or overall energy consumption . Unlike Brussels and other older cities, North Americans live in places that appear to be used to encourage burning energy, from reliance on cars to the five exposed sides of single-family homes.

Or as I noted in a previous post, we need to reduce demand. Clean up electricity. Electrify everything.

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