Bringing Climate Change Home

Big Picture

   Most writing about climate change starts with a long-winded summary of the situation, listing all the horrible things that have/are/will happen. The goal is to be sure the reader accepts climate change as real. I’m going to skip that part and assume you, gentle reader, already know that climate change is real, that it’s here now, and that it’s bad. Let’s move on to heating our homes.

   Heating our homes takes energy. Right now, almost all of us get that energy from burning natural gas. We know that the process releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and we know that’s a problem. There’s a good chance some of the folks reading this don’t realize that the problems are bigger than that, so I’ll spend a little time explaining.

   If we assume we don’t want to consider coal or fuel oil, both worse than natural gas, the only real solution is electricity. But wait, you say. Doesn’t electricity come from burning those bad things? Some of it does. But it also comes from the generators at dams, solar panels, wind turbines, and nuclear power plants. Now, in 2020, Portland General Electric, Portland’s main supplier of electricity, gets about 25% of its energy from these alternate “green” sources. It plans to be at 50% by 2022, a little over a year away. Our country plans to close several coal-fired power plants this year. No new gas-fired power plants are scheduled to be built this year. But solar farms and wind farms are being built across the country. The future should see that 50% renewable number go steadily up! Personally, I’d rather be riding on the train headed toward renewable energy.

The Problem With Gas

   Natural gas has a nice sound. But what is “natural” about it? Its chemical name is methane, which is a carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms. That molecule contains a lot of energy, and if you surround it with some oxygen molecules, and provide a spark, it oxidizes, or in normal language, it burns. The part we call burning is the release of a lot of that energy in the form of heat, which can heat our house. The carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules get rearranged into carbon dioxide and water molecules. The carbon dioxide floats up into the atmosphere, and that’s a problem.

   Of course nothing is ever that simple. In the first place, while natural gas is mostly methane, there are other carbon molecules mixed in: butane, ethane, propane, and some other impurities in smaller amounts. One of the unpleasant results is that sometimes carbon monoxide is produced as well, and that’s not good for things that breathe. Another issue with methane is that it is very difficult to get it out of the ground and distributed around the country without it leaking into the atmosphere, and alas, methane is a far worse global warming gas than carbon dioxide! The “efficiency” figures printed for gas furnaces do not take into account that leaked methane.

   The final problem with “natural” gas is its price. Now wait, you say (again). Isn’t natural gas pretty cheap? Why yes, it is! Would it surprise you to know that in 2005 it cost five times as much as it does now? You might wonder what has happened to lower the price so dramatically. The answer is fracking – a relatively new process of setting off explosions underground to “release” the gas otherwise trapped in surrounding rocks. Some things worth knowing about fracking is that it releases a lot of gas right away, and much of that initial gush is lost, leaked to the atmosphere. Fracked wells also run dry much faster (a couple years max) than wells developed in the past. You have to keep drilling and exploding and leaking to stay in business.

   One of the interesting things about natural gas is that it is incredibly awkward to store. It’s much better to sell it to someone who will use it right away. That’s you, homeowner. When you’ve got too much of something, what happens to the price? Down. The country has been fracking for more than a decade now. As you might have guessed, they started at the places where success was most likely. They’ve now moved on to less likely places. Some folks living near the fracking sights are complaining. Basically, there is a limit to how long cheap gas will be available.

The Case for Electricity

   Bluntly, the case for electricity is you live comfortably while using less fossil fuel. Beyond that, there are two basic choices in how to use electricity – you can MAKE heat, or you can MOVE heat.

   Making heat with electricity involves running electricity through a wire that resists the flow of electricity, but not too much. In the process of resisting the flow, the wire gets hot, eventually glowing, and heats the air around the wire. A fan can then blow the warmed air to where the people are. This is called resistive heating, and can range from enough resistance to heat a house down to the space heaters used because the room with your TV is never warm enough. This approach will cost more to heat your house that gas would, at least until the fracking craze is over.

   Moving heat with electricity is harder to understand. It involves moving heat from a cold place to a warm place. Right, that doesn’t make sense, does it? I minored in Physics in college, and I understand the process – using a refrigerant, compressing it in one place, expanding it in another, but I can’t say it makes sense. It seems counter-intuitive. I can provide evidence that it works, though. Go into the kitchen, and open that big box where you keep your perishable food. We call it a refrigerator, but it is a box that moves heat from a cold place (inside) to a warmer place (the kitchen). You’ve just got to trust that it works, because it does! You can do the same thing with your house, only instead of calling it a refrigerator, they call it a heat pump.

   A couple important things to know about a heat pump: first, it uses much less electricity to MOVE heat than to MAKE heat. A heat pump can be as much as four times as efficient as resistive heating. The second thing to know is that the same process can work in reverse. In the summer when it gets hot, the same machine can move heat from a cooler place (inside your house) to a warmer place (out in the hot sun). It can be both a heater and an air conditioner. It’s not as cheap initially as a gas furnace, but it can save you money in the long run.

The Future

   Although a number of folks think natural gas will get more expensive soon, it doesn’t really matter. If we want any chance to slow and eventually stop climate change, we must stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, and that means we have to stop burning fossil fuels. Changing how we heat our homes isn’t enough, of course. There’s transportation and manufacturing and many other things, as well as finding a way to recapture some of the carbon we’ve already emitted. 

   But we need to stop building new buildings that need fossil fuel. Then we need to insist that homes that are remodeled go all-electric. Finally, we need to fix every building in the country. That includes yours and mine. Time to start planning.