Gas, Gas Bans, and Gas Ban Bans: Do We Really Want Politicians Designing Our Energy Systems?

Cities across the country, Spokane included, want to forbid us from using natural gas in our homes, schools, and businesses. Washington State legislators and regulators are pushing statewide bans, in parallel tracks.

Mark Twain said the past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Inventors and investors sought and created ways of providing illumination. Beef tallow candles and whale oil were giving way to “coal gas.”

Baltimore Gas Light Company, founded in 1816, was the first US firm to provide illuminating gas. It made gas from coal, the coal at first being imported from England by ship!

Gas light companies gained ground, especially in urban areas, and were for a while mighty competitors to electric lighting. The invention and development of gas mantles amplified the effectiveness of gas as an illuminant…especially cheap and abundant natural gas.

Things changed, as coal gas gave way to natural gas, and as electric generators and lamps became more efficient. Gas became more desirable for heating and cooking, while electricity became more desirable for illumination. Illuminating a closet with a light bulb makes sense. Using a gas flame does not.

Gas has its advantages. So does electricity. They complement each other.

Gas burns cleaner than coal, and produces less CO2 in the process.

We can economically store natural gas. After all, Planet Earth does that naturally for us.

We can generate electric power FROM natural gas, with a conversion efficiency of up to 60% in combined-cycle power plants.

Modern gas furnaces run at efficiencies of over 90%. Inventors and engineers figuring out how to not only extract the heat of combustion, but also the heat of condensation of the water vapor. Our furnaces run so efficiently they only need a PVC pipe for a vent!

Electricity moves at the speed of light; and provides us probably the very most versatile source of energy: lighting, motors, electronics and more. But, it’s expensive to store.

We can heat and cook with electricity, but should we? Let’s do the math.

You get about 100% of the heat from burning gas to cook.

But, if you first generate electricity from gas (60%) then distribute it (90%), and then run your stove with it, you’re down to around 54% efficient.

Put another way, the power plant needed to burn about twice as much gas to run your stove than you would burn in a gas stove.

Nevertheless, a campaign began in 1956 called Live Better Electrically. The “all electric home” was promoted. In our area with abundant hydroelectric power, maybe that made sense. But for most of the country highly dependent on coal, it didn’t.

Electricity is more valuable because it is more versatile. I find it wasteful to burn electricity for heat when I could burn gas instead.

A gas ban would mean I have no choice: the government made it for me.

Let’s think about the ripple effects of a gas ban. When it’s time to build a new school, home, church, store, or factory, it would be forced to be all-electric. Here in Pullman, that means Avista would need to put in more or thicker-conductor lines, as well as more and larger substations. The homeowner remodeling would have to rip out the electrical panel and replace it with a new one of larger ampacity. The already-large and expensive conductors from the utility transformer to the home would have to be replaced. If it’s underground service, the conduits would need to be dug up and replaced with larger ones for the larger conductors. Avista would have to replace the distribution transformer on the pad or pole that supplies your electricity. Your gas appliances, including your 90% efficient gas furnace, would go to the dump for recycling.

Your electric power rates will necessarily skyrocket. Multiplying higher rates times greater usage adds insult to the injury!

What about more solar? In the short days of winter, there’s no production.

What about more wind? When it’s calm, there’s no production.

On a calm night, there’s no solar or wind production.

What, then, are you going to heat and cook with?

During last February’s Valentine’s Day Electrical Massacre in Texas, folks were moving their propane grills inside their homes to heat and cook, sadly resulting in fires, asphyxiation, and poisoning from carbon monoxide.

Will we install more wood stoves, or will those be more harshly regulated or even banned too?

What about battery storage? Although it’s getting better, it remains expensive.

Will it be economical someday? I hope to live to see it happen, but in the meantime, depending on batteries is an expensive gift to China.

Increased expenses hit the poor and folks on fixed income the hardest.  

How would it affect SEL? We build new buildings frequently, and we remodel our older ones over time. We don’t use any natural gas for processes, but we do depend on it for hot water and winter heating.

Converting to electricity at work is similar to converting at home… larger panels, thicker lines, higher rates. We’re part of critical infrastructure, so virtually every one of our buildings is backed up by diesel generator sets. Fortunately, Avista service is so reliable, these seldom need to run. But when the lights go out, we depend on those generators to keep production going and to meet our obligations to our customers at home and around the world.

We’d need to replace our generators with larger ones, or add more generators to most or all buildings.

We’d need to store more diesel fuel, too.

All this costs money…better spent on other things.

It’s already hard to get permits for them, even though they’re only for backup. Adding more won’t be easy.

Given that Avista estimates they’d have to DOUBLE their infrastructure to handle the once gas/now electric loads, they’ll have to get rate increases to pay for the capital.

Their newer sources of generation may not be as dependable as the existing ones…further increasing our dependence on local backup sources.

Now, imagine on top of all of this, if politicians decided to breach the Snake River dams! That would be another hit on clean generation, and a big hit on clean, efficient, economical energy storage.

We could be in a real world of hurt.

Political decisions affecting our energy supplies can be literally deadly and bankrupting.

Witness the electricity prices skyrocketing in England… seven times of rates a year ago!

Witness California rushing to permit and build gas-fired power plants to fill in for the gaps left by solar and wind, and the abandonment of dependable sources.

Forcing people to suffer, or move to other states, or to heat with wood isn’t right.

Defending folks’ choices as to how they heat their homes and cook their food IS right.

Over time, We the People may individually choose to use different sources of energy.

History teaches us that humankind has found much better, much cleaner, much more economical ways to heat, cook, and illuminate.

I’m convinced that will continue. Naturally.

I’d love to see our country produce its own solar panels, produce better energy-storage means, and burn less gas, and split more atoms.

I hold more hope for unleashing the spirit of free enterprise than the political activities of gas bans and gas ban bans.

Please encourage our elected officials and our regulators to defend and contribute to our economic and political freedoms, not deny them.