If you’re one of the almost five million households in Australia that don’t have gas then you’re a step ahead of a trend that’s about to snowball – all-electric gas-free houses.
The Death Spiral
Most of us who are tuned into the Australian media at any level have heard about the electricity “Death-Spiral” – in fact we hear about variations on the story almost every day. The “Death-Spiral” story is oft used by fossil fuel companies in order to drive agendas that are good for incumbents.
These fossil fuel companies think that super-sized profits at the expense of the environment are their entitlement, and everything that counters their god-given right to be on that “gravy train” is unfair, unwise or just plain unsafe – “look out the sky’s falling and the lights are going to go out” and all thanks to the renewable energy and energy efficiency driven death-spiral.
The Gas Death Spiral
Despite myself and two other prominent commentators writing about the gas death spiral, it’s not a story that’s really been catching on.
Basically, it’s similar to the electricity death-spiral: increasing fuel costs stimulated by export price parity and network businesses cooking the books, upgrading their networks and expecting you, the gas consumer to pay. There is a key difference, though. Gas price hikes come with a pressure relief valve: customers can dump gas, dump the service fee and consolidate everything, eliminating gas appliance safety and servicing costs, with one fuel (electricity) and one bill. And this is certainly evidenced by the 50 per cent of Australian households which get by just fine without gas.
Now, why is it, given the hype around electricity “Death-Spirals,” that there is so little concern about what is going to happen to the gas network? Is it because no one really cares? Is it that we consumers really need electricity but most of us don’t actually need or really want their gas?
One would assume that that’s the case given the general lack of interest in the subject accept by the pipeline owners (Jemena, APA, Envestra etc) and it seems it’s not too far from the truth.
How bad is a loss of electricity supply?
Let’s look at electricity and compare it with other services we’ve come to rely on.
What if you lost internet for a few days? If your land-based Internet connection goes down, what do you do in 2014? Swipe your smartphone, switch on your personal hotspot, and in about two minutes the internet’s back.
But with the electricity network we haven’t got a backup. There’s only one connection from the street and in a real-time, fast paced world we’re reliant on that, for lighting, heating* and telecommunications.
*Even those with gas heaters need electricity to run the controller and fan/s. No electricity, no gas combustion or distribution of heat equals no heating of your house during a blackout.
Need more examples? This time it’s work for many. Work deadlines are closing in, you VPN into the office and access your documents and work databases and the electricity goes down? What do you do? Studying at university? Deadline for your major assessment is due at 11:59PM and the power goes out. OK I think I’ve made the point.
Then there’s the breakdown of electrically powered mains water and sewerage pumps, that comes with loss of electricity supply, I don’t even want to go there.
How bad is a loss of fossil gas?
But what if the gas goes out? Victorians suffered through the winter of 1998 without gas for two whole weeks. At that time, the BHP Petroleum / Exxon Mobil Longford gas plant exploded killing employees and causing massive disruption to energy supplies. (This is repeated over and over again, remember Varanus Island, Moomba and countless tragedies with gas facilities, pipelines and distribution networks blowing up in the USA.)
Those of us who remember the Longford explosion, remember buying low-flow solar camping showers and boiling the kettle to wash, and if we didn’t already have them we bought electric fry-pans and made use of our existing electric ovens and microwaves. It was pretty annoying, but life went on, in fact it was electricity that enabled life to go on with almost no interruption.
But unlike the Longford explosion, in which the electricity supply was able to take over where gas failed, gas wouldn’t be much help if the electricity network went down. (As demonstrated above).
In fact, gas is a source of energy that cannot claim ubiquity. Its pipelines are connected to less than half of the nation’s 9.5 million households, about one million more have bottled gas, but most of those just use this very expensive energy source for cooking (they don’t need to – the superior, easier to control and more efficient technology is called induction electric cooking, but that’s another story).
And what’s more, most of the nation’s apartments that are connected to gas don’t use the fuel for space heating, and many do not even use it to heat hot water, with developers initially only allowing space for small inbuilt electric hot water services hidden in undersink cupboards. And in Victoria, to meet green building standards, builders fit new houses with single flat panel solar systems and they boost electric.
So how do we do it electric?
Today, reverse cycle air conditioners such as the amazing Daikin Ururu Sarara – which combines 83 per cent renewable energy from the air with 17 per cent grid electricity to run the motor (achieving a C.O.P. 5.85) – can provide renewable heating much more cheaply than gas. It can be argued that the Daikin possibly has a COP of 7.0 (86% renewable and 14% grid electricity) in reality, as it also controls humidity, which is a major factor in feeling warm and comfortable. You used to be able to confirm what I’m saying via a gas industry website however they’ve recently pulled their online calculator, one would assume due to the embarrassing situation of showing the competing technologies’ (electric heat pumps) cost advantage.
Induction cooktops are the superior cooking option for households in 2014. They are already recognised in Europe with more than 50 per cent market share, and in China they’re going into all the new houses (which are predominately in massive apartment complexes without a gas connection).
There has been so much new information coming to light on the dangers of gas naked flames in our houses, in particular there is the burn and fire risk for the elderly. In fact in Japan they have been specifically marketing all-electric households to the elderly. In addition to these, having unflued gas burning in your house means it is less safe to tightly seal your house from draughts, meaning with gas you’ll be colder and pay more for heating.
Less than 30 per cent of hot water is heated by gas, even after a perverse campaign by the previous federal government to outlaw electric hot water heaters, favouring gas. The net result has been a net shift to more heat-pump hot water heaters and solar (with electric boosting) in the last few years.
So does anyone care?
Given that less than 30 per cent of hot water is heated using gas, lots of houses are paying huge daily service fees just to have gas for cooking and half of the nation’s houses don’t have any gas at all. Is anyone actually going to care if the residential gas networks spin out of control in a death-spiral dive as customers leave in droves?
I left the network two years ago and four of my immediate family members are drawing up their plans. Mike Swanston from Energex, in a talk at the Solar 2014 conference in Melbourne, said that he quit gas a few years ago, ditching the energy source which only powered his kitchen gas stovetop. I even have a friend who has a senior role in the domestic gas supply industry who quit the gas network to save on his daily service fee.
I think we’ll hear a lot more about the restructure of electricity markets, including a shift to kVA capacity charging being debated against those pushing the merits of old-school time-of-use pricing. But for gas, there will be no market shakeup proposals, just people quitting the networks as the price of gas goes up driven by linkage to international markets through Queensland’s LNG terminals and the same price gauging that the electricity networks tried coming back to bite the gas incumbents. Because with electricity you have no where to go but do-it-yourself with solar, but with gas just ask half of Australia who don’t have gas where you can go when the networks, suppliers and gas pipeline owners try and rip you off?