Whenever the talk turns to ending the era of fossil fuels, it seems somebody is sure to say, “We can’t phase out natural gas too quickly. That would break the grid.”
It is true that the transition to all-electric buildings and vehicles requires expanding our electrical infrastructure—the vast network of power plants, substations, and transmission lines that make up the grid. And safe, reliable delivery of electrical power is absolutely critical. The task is becoming more challenging as the changing climate brings disasters like severe storms, flooding, and extreme temperatures.
For example, during the “Texas freeze” of February 2021, a power outage lasting several days affected more than 10 million people, caused 111 deaths, and cost economic losses totaling around $155 billion. And across the US, hotter weather is causing millions to use their air conditioners more. But thanks to innovations in power distribution, battery storage capacity, and energy efficiency, this increasing demand can be met without relying on so-called “natural” gas.
The power grid is rapidly evolving into a “Smart Grid” capable of two-way communication between a power company and its customers, allowing the system to sense and respond to what’s happening along its transmission lines. The Smart Grid will use distribution intelligence to re-rout power automatically in case of trouble; detect and contain outages; and, after an outage, restore power to higher-priority users (say, hospitals) first. This new technology is making the grid much more reliable and resilient than before.
Virtual power plants
The grid can connect power sources as well as power users. Buildings that produce their own power, with rooftop solar for instance, are of course much less vulnerable to outages. What’s more, these local power sources can transmit the power they produce back to the grid when need be. And they can be networked to create a Virtual Power Plant (VPP), replacing or supplementing energy from the power company during emergencies like severe storms or peak demand times like heat waves.
VPPs can reduce or eliminate the need for peaker plants—gas-powered plants that supply electricity when renewable energy sources are less available. Peaker plants usually switch on between 4pm and 9pm, polluting the air with greenhouse gases. Contra Costa County is home to two peaker plants, both located in Antioch.
VPPs are already happening in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
The city of Santa Barbara is setting up one VPP connecting industrial customers and several more VPPs connecting households. And Green Mountain Power, a Vermont utility, is setting up microgrids around the state—leasing solar panels and batteries to households in the more remote towns, then paying these customers for the energy they supply to the microgrid in time of need.
Virtual Power Plants are already reducing the need to build new, massive, expensive “actual” power plants fueled by gas. That’s big.
An awful lot of electricity can be stored in the batteries connected to rooftop solar arrays, in electric vehicle (EV) batteries—even in heat pump water heaters. In case of an outage, this power can be used to keep the lights on. For example, an EV’s battery can store roughly 60 kilowatt-hours; with bidirectional charging capability, this could power a home for two to three days during an outage.
HB 6178, the bidirectional EV charging legislation recently introduced in Congress, would mandate bidirectional capability in EVs by 2027. In California, SB 233, introduced last year and headed back to the legislature in 2024, would make all EV batteries bidirectional by 2030. PG&E’s Vehicle to Everything (V2X) pilot program already offers incentives to help customers use their EV batteries to power their homes.
What’s more, most EV batteries are still useful after they’re retired and removed from vehicles. They can be combined and used to store the energy generated by wind towers or solar panels for a few years before they’re disassembled and recycled. A solar facility in Southern California is doing just that.
Energy efficient appliances
Because it’s imperative to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, old fossil fuel-powered appliances—furnaces, air conditioners, ovens, water heaters, and clothes dryers—have to be replaced with new, all-electric ones. But because these new appliances use much less energy compared to their fossil fuel-powered counterparts—and compared to the all-electric machines of the past—the rise in energy demand is minimized.
Heat pumps are a great example. Up to five times more energy-efficient than a gas or oil furnace, one heat pump can replace both a furnace and an air conditioner. In cold weather, it moves heat from the outdoors into the building; in hot weather, it moves heat from inside the building to the outdoors. Because it’s transferring heat instead of generating heat, this appliance is very energy-efficient. In fact, when used to warm interiors in cold weather, heat pumps use 65 percent less energy than traditional electric furnaces.
Across the country, 45 percent of new homes were built with heat pumps in 2022. In California, 55 percent of new single-family homes have heat pumps instead of traditional furnaces and air conditioners, and the 2022 Energy Code sets heat pumps as the new standard for home construction. The state has set a goal of installing 6 million heat pumps by 2030.
Fossil fuel companies continue to tout so-called “natural” gas as a clean, safe way to power appliances. But the process of extracting, transporting, and burning this gas, which is mainly methane, is neither clean nor safe. Methane leaks occur all along the way, releasing this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Then there’s the health issue. Recent research makes clear that cooking with a gas stove increases risk of asthma and other respiratory problems as well as cancer. Fortunately, induction cooktops offer a safe, affordable, energy-efficient alternative to gas stoves.
Claims for “natural” gas as a sensible, necessary “transition fuel” in the shift away from fossil fuels are simply false.
It’s happening now
The future is all-electric. To get away from gas, we have to build up our electrical infrastructure—and this task is already well underway. Technological innovations are making it more and more doable. It’s a big job, but it can and must be completed without delay.