Get on Board: Must We Electrify Our Homes?

Martha Walden

How should we power our homes?

Our house in Westhaven last winter experienced four power outages that lasted from ten hours to forty hours. That’s the price of living with trees when the wind blows hard, and your local for-profit utility neglects the maintenance. Grid problems are much worse in Southern Humboldt where PG&E has thrown future developments into deep doubt. Looking forward, much seems uncertain as climate change increasingly rattles the status quo.

Civilization must wean itself from fossil fuels, and the faster the better. So far, the most recommended approach worldwide is to electrify everything from buildings to transportation. Marching towards this goal, California is phasing out natural gas by 2045. Humboldt County’s Climate Action Plan takes modest steps in that direction. Incentives would encourage people to replace dying gas appliances with electrical counterparts. The targets are small. However, individual jurisdictions may possibly decide to pass ordinances limiting sales of gas appliances or requiring new buildings to be all-electric, which isn’t so bad, considering that natural gas will be unavailable in 22 years. 

Yet all-electric houses seem like a liability when coupled with an unreliable grid. What a choice – global warming fossil fuels or putting all our eggs in the electrification basket. Is there a third alternative? Biogas used to seem promising, but scaling it up would cause another set of disastrous problems. Hydrogen might work, but that’s pretty far down the road. How about propane?

Propane emissions compare very well to other fossil fuels. Particulates are probably the biggest concern indoors though many of us have lived with them for a long time. The biggest problem with propane is its origin as a by-product of refining petroleum and natural gas. How to separate out its impacts from its parents?  Just to make this issue even more interesting, propane in uncombusted form is extremely valuable as a refrigerant. Compared to the f-gasses currently used as refrigerants, propane is a saint. It will probably be around for much longer than natural gas.

When the electricity goes out, we need back-up systems. Many battery-powered options are available for lights and small appliances. Grid-charged residential storage batteries are increasingly available. They’re still fairly expensive, but much cleaner and quieter than a generator. Of course, solar with storage is the best DIY solution, and more and more people are taking that route.

Cooking and keeping food is a top priority when the power goes out. A propane camp stove can fill in. To keep food cool, we keep a small chest freezer full of mostly ice. It lasts for days without electricity.

Heating the house is the biggest problem. Many gas furnaces require electricity to run, so a lot of people are in the same boat. Small propane heaters can furnish back-up heat but require ventilation for indoor use. Wood stoves are a useful back-up. Burning wood is extremely carbon-intensive and polluting but hard to resist if it’s the only way to heat the house. 

Inconvenience and discomfort when the power goes out is a bummer, but continuing to rely on fossil fuels is creating a catastrophic future. Our best hope at this point is to electrify as much as we can and use propane appliances and wood stoves only as back-up systems for when a falling tree takes out our neighborhood’s electricity.