Turn off the gas, turn on the electricity

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I’ve always been interested in solar energy. When I had a house built in 1976 where we were living in Michigan, I had the south-facing roof pitched at 55 degrees—the ideal slope for gathering solar energy. I built two very simple 4′ x 8′ panels with black copper tubes in them to help preheat our water before it went into the gas-fired hot water heater. It didn’t replace our dependence on fossil fuels, but it was a first step.

Rod Bailey

At our present house in Brighton, we also have a south-facing roof. In 2009, we had 27 photovoltaic panels installed. These delivered about 5,000 watts when the sun was shining on them. At the time these solar panels produced about 60 to 65 percent of our electricity. The current=generation PV units are much more efficient than the ones we had installed and they are also quite a bit less expensive per watt than what was available when we had these installed. A rough comparison shows that new units covering the same area today would generate about 7,000 watts, compared to the current 5,000-watt generation.

The overall cost for our units was about $37,600, with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority paying the contractor directly about $19,980. Our net cost of about $17,620 was further offset with tax credits from New York (about $4,400) and the federal government (about $5,300). This was, obviously, well before the Inflation Reduction Act; there were incentives to encourage the use solar energy even then.

But I am writing here about more than solar energy. This is a personal account of how we’ve moved from using mostly natural gas for heating and appliances to using electricity for almost everything. And we are hoping that soon all of our electricity (not just what we generate) will come from “green” sources.

For our domestic hot water, we originally had a standard gas-fired hot water heater. Hot water heating accounts for about 30 percent of home energy consumption. In the fall of 2010, we had a solar hot water system installed. The 30 evacuated tubes are a big step up from the homemade rig I built in 1977. They are on a small part of our south-facing roof and tipped up at a steeper angle than the roof. The fluid flowing through an inner tube inside each evacuated tube goes through a heat exchanger, which then sends heated water to a 75-gallon hot water tank. This preheated water then goes through an “on-demand” hot water heater to bring the final temperature up to about 120 degrees for use in the house. At present there are no really good electric on-demand water heaters, so we are still using gas for this, though advances are being made in electric tankless options.

The solar hot water system cost about $9,500. We were able to apply for state (25 percent) and federal (30 percent) tax credits. This system has reduced our use of natural gas for domestic water heating dramatically. There have been many times, especially during a sunny spell in the summer, when water in the evacuated tubes is 130 to 140 degrees and water in the 75-gallon tank is 115 to 120 degrees. At such times, obviously, the on-demand gas-fired water heater is barely used.

The big saver of our use of natural gas, however, came from having a geothermal heat pump system installed in the fall of 2020. The system consists of five approximately 100-foot-deep wells in our backyard. The system takes advantage of the difference in the subsurface temperature and the above-ground air to either heat or cool the house. The so-called “water furnace” in our basement replaced two gas-fired furnaces we had been using to heat two zones in our house. (See a description of geothermal technology from the Environmental Protection Agency here.)

The upfront overall cost for this geothermal system was $38,000—a scary figure! But a state Clean Heat rebate of $6,450 reduced that somewhat, and we also got a 26 percent federal tax credit, bringing our final cost to about $23,300. That’s still a lot, but it should pay for itself in utility savings while we are still in the house and it might be a real incentive for a potential home buyer when we’re ready to sell. Eligible homeowners will get even more help from the IRA incentives. You can get an estimate here.

To complete our move away from natural gas, we substituted an electric induction stove for our gas stove and an electric clothes dryer for our gas-fired dryer. At the time, there were no incentives for the induction stove, but the IRA offers an $840 rebate. So, the only thing burning natural gas in our house now is the on-demand hot water heater.

Outside the house, we went to a battery-powered lawn mower, weed whacker, rototiller, and chain saw. We still have a gasoline-powered snowblower but as we are having less and less snow each year, this gets used less and less.

Finally, because the transportation sector emits about 29 percent of all carbon pollution in the U.S., we also bought a Honda plug-in hybrid car in 2018. For most of our driving around town, we are entirely on battery/electric mode.

We’ve been making most of this transition from fossil fuels to electricity for climate reasons, not necessarily to save money. Basically, we want to help save the planet from the worst conditions that may result from a warming climate so our children and grandchildren will have a “reasonable” environment to grow up in.

I understand we will not go back to the climate conditions I grew up with as a child, but it would be nice if we could hold things where they are now and not let them get worse. I realize not everyone is going to be able to make some of the changes we’ve made, but maybe some will get inspired by a story such as ours to try to do some of the things we have done.

Rod Bailey is with Citizens Climate Lobby. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

6 thoughts on “Turn off the gas, turn on the electricity

  1. Mr Frank Orienter- One of the things you failed to mention is that China IS building new Coal fired power plants. Obviously not a level playing field.

  2. Wow, you have certainly done alot to transition to an energy efficient life style. Good for you. I think some of that is good, but I don’t buy the Bidenomics policy. In the winters we have, I love my gas fire places. I have no intention of giving them up. When we moved here we got a gas dryer which I love. I didn’t like our electric one. I do have an induction stove top which I would want to keep if we moved elsewhere. One of my sons does chef cooking and he hates my stove top when he comes to visit. We installed an on demand water system, but we do waste a lot of water waiting for the hot water to get to whatever sink we are using, I read there are some new systems that recirculate the cold water. Not ready to spend any more right now. We were actually considering going back to a water tank. Unless we learn to flush this system out ourselves, it is rather costly to maintain this on demand water heater. Until India and China and other polluters make an effort to clean up the earth I’ll do what I can within reason. As for cars, I’d consider a hybrid if I even get a new car, but I have no desire to have an electric car and I don’t want to be “forced” to buy one. I don’t have the resources to give up everything for the sake of climate theory. You deserve a lot of credit for all you have done but it is not for everyone.

  3. I applaud Mr. Bailey’s commitment to transition from natural gas to an all-electric home—a few points to ponder. First, we need a list of honest and reliable contractors with the same commitment to help transition to an all-electric future. My efforts have not been very fruitful. Next, tax incentives aside, not many citizens can invest tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade their homes. I’ve been informed that the most cost-effective strategy is to ensure that one’s home is fully insulated and air-sealed before embarking on any new energy acquisition. Those wishing to transition away from natural gas should have a plan for which specific appliance should be first on the list based on energy consumption. That most likely would be to install an electric heat pump to replace a gas-fired furnace/air conditioner. It might also make sense to install an automatic natural gas-fired backup electric generator in case our region is subject to more frequent and lengthy power outages. I imagine replacing your gasoline-powered vehicle might impact carbon emissions most based on how much one drives. Finally, and most crucial when considering one’s carbon footprint, how is the electricity you use generated? In NY State, we are fortunate to have a significant amount of nuclear and hydro generation, between 20 and 30 percent. I wish utilities were required to list where the power they sell is generated monthly. Hence, consumers understand the overall impact of where their electricity comes from on the open market. As I write this, 70% of the electricity in NY is generated using natural gas and petroleum. That ratio is not likely to change significantly in the next few years. So solar PV cells with battery storage, at this moment, look like the best alternative to reducing one’s carbon footprint. Of equal or greater importance to reduce our carbon impact is citizens should apply pressure on their legislators to build new, next-generation, inherently safe nuclear power plants to supply large amounts of no-carbon electricity as soon as possible.

  4. Talk about a “Rube Goldberg” machine (defined as ingeniously or unnecessarily complicated in design or construction). I would stipulate that the pony in this manure pile is the hot water heating apparatus. That actually has a pay back model, and is even more efficient the more south in the country you locate it. (and the less susceptible you are to freezing the more you can simply use copper in a green house box to heat water efficiently, like your initial panel). HOWEVER any of this stuff should have a cost/payback model w/o tax credits. If you save ~$25 /mo by keeping your hot water heater off the grid (I’m being generous, as it will not perform year around given CNY cloud cover and winter. (thats a ~30yr payback w/o tax credits) with a $9050 installation, even w/ tax credits (net outlay of $4275, thats a 14yr+ payback). IMO you’d be better off with a simpler green house copper pipe panel , use it only in the summer and get a faster payback (with the copper tube model you initially described) .

    A lot to unpack with the rest of this . Virtually nobody has a 55 degree pitched roof. Assuming electric consumption of roughly 1000 kwH /mo. Using a generous assumption of 6 hrs of sunlight per day , thats roughly 1400 watts /hr, so your 7,000 watt panel would cover that (presuming you have sunlight for a considerable period during the day, which is a dubious assumption in Upstate NY, this also presumes you have no majestic trees in your yard blocking the sun). This also assumes peak efficiency with the panel (ie full sunlight applied) and discounts the panel’s wear out mechanism (as it gets older, it gets less efficient, that’s if it lasts its expected life of ~20yrs). Since this is presented as a virtuous contribution to “clean energy”, we should be reminded that photo-voltaic panel manufacturing is dirty, it involves acids, solvents, photo-resists, boron and arsenic (to name a few elements) which eventually has to be disposed of in injection wells). [I would be all for these being manufactured in China, so they can pollute their country, not ours] . Btw, the panel takes 5 yrs to replace the energy it took to make it.

    If you take the total overall cost (inc tax credits ,we are writing these checks after all) of the solar apparatus of ~$47K. Assuming a 1000 khw consumption a month, @ $.20 /khw, thats $200 /mo. , the $47K would pay almost 20 years of conventional electric bills. Wouldn’t that be the better option? There is no mention here of dirty lithium batteries for storage when the sun doesn’t shine and their robust expense.

    If you insist on conflating climate with weather, perhaps you should root for “climate change” so there is a warmer, more sunny environment for your solar model.

    • Tom, so pleased you did the math. You’re spot on. In addition there are many, many other problems that do not see the light of day. Take one. Drive down 390 and you will see a pile of blades, giant windmill blades piled up like garbage. That is precisely what they are unrecyclable blades. It’s a by product of the green journey. It’s not all green all the time. Before we rush into the green era maybe we ought to measure, monitor and assess the “fallout” from this green movement. Thinking you’re aiding the planet with your green products and services is one thing, making sure you’re not making a greater mess another. I know we will not mine here, but we have to mine somewhere. I know we have electric cars, but few of can afford them at a $53,000.00 average price. I could go on and on, but those who are hell-bent in doing it now as opposed to slowly adapting the technology, don’t have it all figured out. They look at half the picture. And then, if we adopt the green direction, what will other nations do? (As in Chine, Iraq, Russia etc.) If you think that sacrificing this nation for the green issue as others dominate and even invade our fragile nation is wise…..think again. The green issue needs to be embraced globally. If not, we are wasting our time on this planet. The statistical justification by Mr. Rod Bailey is one that may work for him, but doesn’t add up for “joe schmoe”, and there are many, many more Joe Schmoe’s than Baileys.

      • In defense of early adopters, how else can we evaluate the impact and effectiveness of new technologies if some people aren’t willing or able to take the plunge? Technology evolves with lessons learned from the brave pioneers. I agree there is a big global picture to consider, but we need good, objective data for decision-making. That said, I hope the early adopters take the time to gather data so we all will benefit down the road. By the way, the two most populous countries on the planet, India and China, are building new nuclear power plants to replace coal-fired ones and are exploring appropriate solar power and batteries for remote locations. China, India, Vietnam, and other nations on the other side of the planet are building new, small electric vehicles. I suspect per capita uses far less carbon-generating energy than we do. In a recent meeting of African nations, leaders implored the weather nations of the world to invest in their countries, many of which are gravely impacted by climate change. They don’t want to repeat our errors but want new, appropriate technologies. Several countries with vast forests want to explore how they can be compensated by growing their carbon sink jungles to help industrial nations meet their goals. Yes, we need folks leading the way to find new and better ways to survive.

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