ANALYSIS: By 2025, homes and buildings should start the shift to electric, says the Climate Change Commission – which has proposed to ban most new hook-ups to the gas network after that date.
Natural gas and LPG prices are going to soar as the country cuts its carbon footprint, due to the Emissions Trading Scheme.
But instead of seeing the move as consumer protection, media figures (and the gas industry) reacted to the proposal with ire.
If the commission sticks with its stance in its final advice to be released next week, the fate of the proposal will rest in the hands of the Government. Energy Ministry Megan Woods recently signalled she’s open to a softer stance.
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In a recent speech at an energy event, Woods said the underground gas network provides “many opportunities for alternative lower emissions fuels to be used”, including biomethane (a non-fossil form of natural gas) and hydrogen.
“These are all matters the Government will need to consider before making recommendations about the future of natural gas use in commercial and residential applications over the next thirty or so years,” she said.
Woods’ comments will be shaped by the public reaction. Many consumers were taken aback, and some cancelled their gas installation plans – perhaps as a way to cut their carbon footprint or due to concerns about supply of the fuel.
Woods will also have heard from the industry. Many gas fitters will have also trained as plumbers and drain layers – but not all. Despite the commission’s advice for support and retraining, they’re naturally afraid of going out of business in 2025, or sooner.
Then there’s the owner of the underground pipes that transport natural gas around the North Island, a group called First Gas. If the country completely replaces gas with electricity, they could be left with a set of useless pipes. This is its motive to convince us, and Woods, that green gas has a future in our homes.
Hydrogen and biomethane look to be good solutions for industrial processes (such as making steel), long-haul trucking, generating electricity on winter nights – and even powering our portable BBQs.
But this new world would require First Gas to significantly pivot its business. Fossil gas, mixed with some green gas, flowing through to homes and buildings would act as a safety net.
There are several reasons to say no – eventually.
Burning gas in homes is unhealthy. A gas stove in an enclosed space creates unsafe levels of air pollution – and that won’t change if we swap natural gas for biomethane or green hydrogen. All gas produces water vapour when combusted. Kiwi homes are problematically damp and mouldy, and unvented gas appliances add to this problem.
More people are hurt in gas accidents each year, compared to electricity – and green hydrogen could make the problem worse. This is an opportunity to decide if it’s acceptable to have these health risks in our homes.
Of course, there’s the climate: we must make dramatic cuts to emissions this decade – and it’s unclear if the industry could produce significant amounts of green gas in that timeframe.
Green gas is in its infancy. Low-emissions hydrogen is being used in industry and a few trucks, but it’s never been mixed into the residential gas supply.
The commission has reasoned: Why risk overshooting our carbon budgets if green gas fails to eventuate when we have electricity, a tried-and-true low-carbon source of energy?
Powering homes with electricity makes even more sense in light of Woods’ goal to have a completely renewable electrical grid by 2030.
Even if we can make significant amounts of green gas, households will pay a price, particularly Kiwis living in rentals.
Natural gas bills are on the rise – homes are expected to pay $150 more each year by 2035, because of rising emissions trading prices. Mixing in green gas is unlikely to bring costs down. The ingredients to make biomethane will be in hot demand. Green hydrogen is made using electricity, and the process is fairly inefficient.
To achieve a piped system of zero-carbon gas, First Gas will likely need to replace much of its underground network to handle hydrogen. Homes could be forced to replace appliances. Neither will be cheap.
Of course, homeowners will be able to switch from gas to electricity if they don’t like the consequent bills.
But renters could be left high and dry. With many competing simply to get a roof over their heads, they have little power over whether their home runs on gas or electricity. Those in gas-powered houses would pay if the Government chose to prop up the gas industry instead of protecting these vulnerable consumers.
The commission’s ban was backed by experts at the International Energy Agency: it says highly efficient heat pumps are the greenest solution to warm our homes. Electrical appliances require a fraction of the energy of green gas, making things cheaper for everyone.
And even if a proportion of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, it’s still a greener choice.
Yet rather than betraying the commission, Woods may be protecting it by shelving the ban. This is the kind of cultural issue that really gets people’s backs up, and could erode support for the commission.
She may decide to delay the idea, and do significant work in the background, particularly with the gas fitting industry, to prepare the country for a ban or moratorium. Fee-free training in fields such as solar installation could win them over.
Woods could take the time to warm up consumers – to let us know we’ll be healthier and richer if we cut off gas to our homes altogether.
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