Earlier this year, the Palo Alto City Council waded through graphs and charts and strategies and agreed to work toward this scenario in nine years and four months: Almost every new car in Palo Alto is electric and no home uses gas for heating, hot water or cooking.
The next morning, as I walked my dog in the neighborhood, the first friend I saw asked about the meeting. I gestured to the houses nearby and said we were all going to have to stop using natural gas. She said she didn't want to, and I said we might need to turn it off within a decade. She replied that our electricity comes from sources that aren't good either.
Actually, our electricity is carbon neutral and comes from hydro (water going over dams), solar (mostly large projects in the Central Valley), methane capture (from landfills) and wind turbines (located elsewhere). This means that you can use Palo Alto electricity with confidence that it is clean energy and that there is an entire team of staff plus the Utilities Advisory Commission constantly working on the sources, pricing and availability of this energy.
A few blocks later, another friend offered to show me her backyard renovation in progress. In the middle of the lovely new patio was a gas connection for a firepit. I reluctantly asked if she knew how bad they were for the environment and she said no. She said she was glad her high schooler didn't know because she would make the family take it out!
Natural gas sounds positive and has been marketed with a pretty little blue flame for decades. But here are two crucial facts about natural gas, which most of us use to heat our homes and water, many of us use to cook our food, and some of us use to make sitting outside more pleasant in the evenings: 1) You are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when you burn it, and 2) Leaks in the natural gas extraction and distribution process create methane, which is 84 times worse than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in terms of its ability to capture and retain heat.
Some climate action advocates use scare tactics, some talk about the future in dramatic personal fashion, some are deep in the data of Celsius, and metric tons, and decay rates, and other measurements. Let's move from fear, drama and technical details to the changes that all of us can make now. The terminology is clunky — electric pump water heater, which is hard to envision, and magnetic induction, which makes me think there might be a physics quiz — but the effect is to get the gas out of your house.
Just as we prepare for earthquakes by having supplies ready, we need to prepare for that hot water heater to fail. They usually last about 10 years and when they go out absolutely everyone in the house wants them replaced 10 minutes ago. One public speaker on that Monday night, who is very concerned about climate change, shared that last year she replaced her water heater with a new gas one because she didn't know how bad natural gas was for the atmosphere and that there is a great alternative. She's not the only one who doesn't know that you are likely creating problems in your home for life on this planet — and you can start solving them today.
If you own your home, make sure there is a 240V outlet near your current water heater and bookmark the city's page on heat pump water heaters. If you rent a home, ask the landlord if they will do this. If you live in an apartment, get together with your neighbors and ask the landlord what it would take to switch over from natural gas to electric and how you can help. If you live in a condo, show up at your next homeowners association meeting and ask them when the complex can switch and how you can help. Seriously, write this down on a Post-It note or put it on your phone's to-do list!
Now, let's turn to the "I love my gas range and you will have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands" narrative. I love to cook as much as the next person, possibly more. I host an annual Julia Child dinner with another family, make meals for friends with babies and friends with cancer, and basically view cooking for others as the highest form of love. And I've managed with a glass on electric range for 20 years, which is nowhere near as good as the new induction cooktops that use magnets.
Think of induction as a Tesla for your countertop — good-looking, good for the planet and super fast. A friend of mine who prizes his gas stove recently stayed at a home with induction and was impressed with how well it worked. Some restaurant chefs are switching to induction because it works as well as gas and it improves air quality and safety in their kitchens.
If you want help getting the gas out of your home, start with a virtual visit from our Home Efficiency Genie, which you can schedule online or by calling 650-713-3411. It's free this month (usually $49) and you will get expert advice for your home and your needs. It's time for all of us to start making changes at home.