I recently read an article about a gentleman from Golden who electrified his home by replacing all of his natural gas (NG) appliances with electricity.
While I have no problem with energy efficiency, renewables, or electrification per se – I’ve installed solar panels on my roof and installed the most efficient alternating current possible – reading this made me asked how much electrification would cost for my 950 square foot palace on the plains. The best I could get from the article above was that it was “not cheap”.
When it comes to things like this, I always think of a quote from Lord Kelvin that I share with my physics students: “When you can measure what you’re talking about and put it in numbers, you know something about it. , when you can’t put it in numbers, your knowledge is scant and unsatisfactory.” I was reminded of this because when we talk about things like this (both as people and as state), we need to base our discussion on numbers. Numbers cut the mental shortcuts we are all likely to use, both the platitudes about technology allowing us, without loss to our standard of living, to reduce gas greenhouse, and the cries about how environmental concerns will leave us penniless and uncomfortable.
A quick note before we begin: Electrification cost estimates get complicated quickly and vary widely. What you will see here is a common physics tool, the “back of the envelope” calculation. To help you understand what this means, imagine a target in the bullseye, the one with the big dot in the center and around it. My estimates will be underestimated and will be in the same circle as the center, but they will not be exact. In the spirit of transparency (and so that you can estimate for yourself if you wish), I detail more on my Facebook page.
To electrify, I will have to replace a water heater and a boiler. A quick look online shows that replacing them (an electric water heater and heat pump, the darling of the electrification crowd) would cost around $6,200. It’s up to me to do the work and if everything goes well. Hiring for the work done would easily double that amount. Putting that number into perspective, $6,200 is about six mortgage payments, eight months of groceries, or a used car equivalent to my current (also tiny) grocer.
Now nature doesn’t really care if I bring in electric or combustion power for heating, so in the absence of a change in the heat flow out of my house, I can probably assume that my annual energy consumption will remain constant. Currently I use 611 Therms of NG per year. Knowing this, it’s tempting to just go to Google and convert consumption units from NG (Therms) to power consumption units (kilowatt-hours or kWh) and be done with it. It’s an easy conversion, except it ignores a fundamental difference between combustion heating and electricity.
Smell the vent (carefully!) the next time you’re near your furnace or water heater. That heat you feel in the metal? It’s waste heat – you paid for it but you get no use out of it. Second, heat pumps capitalize on the energy in the air around your home to increase their heat output. A decent heat pump, running in optimal conditions, could put 3 units of energy into your home for every unit it consumes. Again, things are further complicated by the fact that below a certain temperature (yes, unlike Southern California, we have winters here), heat pumps must use additional electrical power to continue to heat your home.
Due to space constraints, I’m going to skip a tremendous amount of detail here and go straight to the drop line “I have, after researching the efficiencies and relative wattages required for the boiler and water heater, found efficient efficiency for combustion compared to electric I estimate that electric appliances are about 1.5 times more efficient than NG appliances – that is, your NG appliances will consume half the fuel energy than an electrical installation. Putting all the pieces together, my NG consumption of 611 Therms-per-year would be around 12,000 kWh of electrical energy. At current prices, and after holding taking into account what I already pay for gas, the new electric would cost about $740 After per year.
Not cheap indeed. Year 1 of electrification is $7,000. Each year thereafter will cost $740. Got a bigger house, unwilling/unable to sweat equity? Your cost would be even greater.
You are welcome to draw your own conclusions as to whether or not it is worth it for you. For my family, it would be a huge commitment of time and money. If you bump up the numbers, you can see it would be the same for our state — and I haven’t even touched on the generation side of the equation.
You will forgive me but that seems beyond sensible to me; we all live in the ‘now’ and while it’s good to look ahead or have the resources to follow every new direction we think the future will go, I have to live today . For me and for my family, I want small steps that don’t support the continued increases in my cost of living – not big statements.
Cory Gaines is a professor of physics at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook and lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of discovering things.”