By Sherry Listgarten
"It's too little too late" and other reasons why notUploaded: Sep 12, 2021
FUD. Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Big changes should be carefully considered. But when a new idea quickly provokes objections from many different angles, something else might be going on. It could be that entrenched interests are raising FUD. It might be that people resistant to change are trying out arguments. Or maybe the various issues being raised provide cover for an underlying concern that people are reluctant to talk about.
I suspect something like that is going on with home electrification. Could there be some fundamental issue, one that underlies all the others, whose resolution would render the other complaints quickly irrelevant? My guess is yes, and that underlying issue is cost. Would people be so passionate about the type of energy their water heater uses if they knew the costs to be the same either way? Do people in Florida hesitate to install efficient heat pumps because China’s emissions are still increasing?
If the economics of clean retrofits were predictably favorable, would the many other objections still matter to people?
I bet that favorable economics would trump virtually all the other concerns people raise about electrification. This is why our local governments and power providers should do everything they can to create a clear and compelling cost message before pushing for widespread adoption. (1)
In the meantime, I want to use this blog post to address some of the myriad non-economic objections to electrification that have been raised in local forums. (2) I do this with some hesitation because I don’t think people would be so concerned with these issues if the economics were clear. But I’ll give it a shot.
“It’s too late.”
This objection may be best considered with an analogy. Suppose it’s the first warm weekend in summer, maybe some time in mid-June, and you decide to head over to the coast for a little R&R. You set up your towels and beach chairs, dig your toes into the sand, head over to test the water, and next thing you know it’s 11:30am and you’ve forgotten to put on your sunblock. Yikes. You are in for a little sunburn.
The question is, what do you do next? Do you get the sunblock out of your bag and apply it, even putting on a little extra to help soothe the burn that is coming? Or do you say to yourself “It’s too late” and prepare to bake in the sun until your skin is swollen and blistered?
Most of us would put on the sunblock.
“It’s too little.”
A big change is often made up of small changes, as we demonstrate every day. If we want the movie theater to be quiet, we stay quiet. If we want the park to be neat, we put our trash in the bin. If we want our candidate to win, we vote. We don’t complain that the action is “too little.” We do our part.
One difference may be that there is a convention in those cases, a trust that others will do the same thing. So the objection may be better phrased as...
“I’ll do it when more of my neighbors are doing it.”
This comes up often. People want to know that this electrification thing is real, is here to stay, is the future. They want to know that the technology is mature, the costs are understood, the local support is solid. They don’t want to be “the chump” with the only electric house on the block.
I can understand this stance, the feeling that there is safety in numbers. It highlights the critical role of early adopters who vet the technology, enabling others to get comfortable with it while the ecosystem develops. Our local governments, together with early adopters, need to paint a clear and consistent view of the future for people with this hesitation.
“I’ll do it when China reduces their emissions.”
I have a difficult time with this position. Much of the world is looking to the United States to act because we are the single biggest contributor to all of the warming we are experiencing to date and one of the biggest emitters on the planet. Yes, China has to aggressively reduce its emissions. But imo there is no chance of China, or much of the rest of the developing world, acting aggressively unless we do. The leverage that we have should make us more motivated to change, not less.
“Electricity is more expensive than gas.”
This is true, but also less relevant than it seems. One therm of gas has the same energy as 29 kWh of electricity. If gas costs $1.50/therm and electricity costs $0.15/kWh (ballpark figures in Palo Alto), then electricity is about 3x the price of gas. However, many electric appliances are 3x more efficient, effectively equalizing the operational costs.
Moreover, it’s important to consider how prices are likely to evolve. If Palo Alto were to expand its Tier 1 pricing ($0.137/kWh) for homes with electric heat, and if gas prices were to hover closer to their Tier 2 rate (currently $2.09/therm), then gas appliances would suddenly cost 64% more to operate than their efficient electric counterparts. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that happens in the next few years.
“Our electricity is no cleaner than gas.”
This is false. Our local power providers contract to buy zero-carbon energy that matches the amount we customers buy each year. The power mixes are published in a “power content label”. They do not contract for any gas-powered electricity. Every year they put the same amount of clean energy onto the grid that we use.
However, we do end up using some gas because the power that our local power providers purchase gets mixed into the California grid, which we then draw from. We buy the clean stuff and get the not-as-clean stuff. That is by design, and in fact our power providers depend on the arrangement to a certain extent. We get better coverage of electricity than if we were to rely solely on our own contracted energy supplies. When our resources are producing too much, others can use the extra. When they are producing too little, we can use excess from others. For the same reason, the state of California connects to power grids in other states. It is more efficient to share across a wide area than to have each region solely responsible for its own power. (3)
Our local utilities are working towards more closely matching the supply they purchase to their customer demand on an hourly basis. They already purchase a wide variety of complementary energy resources, including solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and battery storage. But we do use the grid’s energy mix to cover sporadic gaps in our portfolio. And that may be powered by gas.
To minimize our gas use, we can set timers on our electric appliances to use less power during the times when the grid is dirtiest, such as 4-9pm. That also saves our utilities money.
“I love my gas stove.”
My 2c: Fine, hang onto it. My gas stove is a pain to clean and I don’t love having to turn on the noisy hood every time I cook. One of the igniters is also a little flaky. I won’t miss my gas stove. But I understand that others are pretty attached. In that case, keep it and focus on the bigger emitters (space and water heating). Once you’ve done that, the economic case for switching your stove may change your mind.
“It won’t work in my house.”
Some homes may not have room for a tank water heater or an outdoor heat pump. I would like to see our cities evaluate a selection of homes to suss out these issues before crafting policies.
“We will run out of electricity.”
No we won’t. Home electrification will not happen overnight and the city (and state) are planning for it.
“Hello? We are already running out of electricity. We have rolling blackouts. We have power shutoffs. We can’t even use electricity between 4-9pm.”
We did have one rolling blackout last year during a widespread heatwave. That meant our power went out for 1-2 hours. (A rolling blackout is specifically designed to take out power for 1-2 hours, no more.) Given that rolling outages are very rare, they are short, and they are announced in advance, I worry more about a stray mylar balloon.
The Public Safety Power Shutoffs are different. These happen with some regularity in certain areas during dry and windy days. The outages are announced in advance and last for multiple days. I would hesitate to recommend an all-electric home in one of those areas, or even any home, without solar and a home battery.
Finally, we are indeed encouraged to conserve electricity between 4-9pm. Our power providers want to reduce peak usage so our electricity is cleaner and cheaper. By “peak shaving” we avoid having to build out little-used capacity that runs only at times of highest demand. I am all for smoothing out demand like this. I don’t want to pay for capacity that we hardly ever use when there’s a simple alternative.
I’m not saying that outages don’t matter. But a certain level must be acceptable. People who have opted for tankless water heaters understand that and have decided they can live without hot water during the rare outage here. As we rely more on the grid, our power providers need to be clear and transparent about reliability and uptime. We should agree on what level of service is satisfactory and what steps to take if we fall short.
“Natural gas is clean.”
No, it’s not.
“We should do X instead.”
People sometimes suggest that we should do something else to reduce our emissions. I’ve heard: ban gas leaf blowers, ticket idling cars, eliminate concrete basement construction, remove the local airport, and reduce plastic. This “whataboutism” isn’t interesting imo unless it comes with a clear argument. How much would X reduce emissions, who would pay (or save) and how much, and what would it take to build consensus locally and enact? Can these be done in tandem with other actions?
“We should use Y instead.”
Here Y can be so-called “green hydrogen” or “blue hydrogen”, bio fuels, synthetic gas, gas with carbon capture, or other. The fossil fuel industry is very interested in these approaches. There are certainly cases where electric power is unlikely to be enough, like air travel, heavy shipping, and steel manufacturing. But electrification is a good match for residential heating, as has been shown in many places. If you are recommending an alternative, consider what it will cost, when it can be ready, and whether it can scale. These are big questions with often uncertain or unfavorable answers, creating considerable risk relative to electrification. How long do you suggest we hold back on electrification and burn yet more fossil fuels while exploring another approach?
“The grid could be hacked.” or “We need a diversity of energy sources.”
Well, what we really need is a diversity of habitable planets. Short of that, we should stop heating up the one that we do have. We already have critical dependencies on the grid, so all the more reason to better secure it and build in redundancy.
"I don't want the government telling me how to spend my money."
The most principled objectors will stand firm even when the change saves them money (cf LED lighting). This isn't so much an economic argument as a political argument. I expect that people with this stance will find living in California difficult in general. It will be interesting to see how electrification ramps up in Texas, though the climate there is different and even more favorable for heat pumps overall.
“I’d rather just adapt to the new climate.”
The problem is, not everyone has access to insulated homes, air conditioners, imported food, and irrigated water. Poorer people who contribute little to climate change end up suffering the most. Wildlife has little recourse. Future generations will get slammed. You may adapt, but many cannot. The only fair thing to do is to clean up the mess we have made. And to begin with, stop making it worse.
“It’s too hard, I am giving up.”
One person put it this way: “We are on a path to make the Earth uninhabitable but I think all the alternatives are just way too inconvenient.” That may have been ironic. For sure an uninhabitable Earth is even more inconvenient, not to mention all of the suffering on the way there. I hope we can all find a way to make a change that works for us, then go from there.
Almost all of you who are reading this are concerned about global warming. Reducing our home building emissions is a concrete and lasting change that each of us can make to mitigate not only our own impact but that of future generations. The technology is proven and available for most cases and the economics are good in many contexts and improving in others. Thank you to all of the early adopters who will be having an outsized impact as we move up the adoption curve.
Source: City of Palo Alto
Notes and References
0. Thank you to my daughter for the burner love emoji.
1. Early adopters, up to 15% of the population, are less sensitive to cost. They may be grateful for the technologies that allow them to reduce their emissions, and happy to make an outsized impact by trying them out early, even with some modest financial risk. Others may be especially interested in some of the co-benefits (e.g., quiet air conditioning or a high-tech stovetop). We can attract more early adopters by making it easier to electrify and being clear about the impact of doing so. Widespread adoption requires a different approach. In either case, we should be transparent about any additional costs. That information will not dissuade early adopters, and we want to build trust with all residents.
2. Examples of economic concerns, which I believe need to be addressed with singular focus prior to pushing for widespread adoption, include:
- “I can’t afford this.”
- “I just bought a gas appliance and I don’t want to throw it away.”
- “My house is so old that any new appliance I put in will be thrown away in a few years when it’s sold.”
- “Raising gas prices is regressive.”
3. This is something Texas may have learned recently.
Current Climate Data (July/August 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
Do you guys ever click through on these links? The US impacts are sobering. Hottest summer ever, 8th wettest summer ever, and terrible storm and fire damage with widespread air quality concerns.
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