The use of natural gas in homes is coming under fire, after years of being touted by Canada’s energy industry as an ideal fuel in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, or CAPE, is the latest group to criticize natural gas, calling for B.C. homeowners to switch over to electricity-powered appliances when gas-powered ones wear out.
The non-profit group of doctors is launching an online campaign, targeting homeowners in British Columbia in hopes of persuading them to gradually phase out furnaces, hot water tanks, stoves, dryers, fireplaces and any other natural gas-powered appliances.
They caution that turning on a gas stove, for example, releases indoor air contaminants that can be harmful to children with asthma.
FortisBC, the largest distributor of natural gas to homes in British Columbia, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that gas stoves are safe to use. “All cooking releases emissions and particulate matter into the air, regardless of the type of energy used to cook,” FortisBC said. “Proper ventilation, regardless of the heat source you are using, is key to ensuring acceptable air quality while cooking and protecting your health.”
CAPE’s B.C. campaign promoting the switch to electricity-powered appliances such as heat pumps and induction stoves may come as a surprise to generations of Canadians who have grown up with a positive view of natural gas for home heating and cooking.
But consumers must wean themselves off natural gas and should not depend on it as a transition fuel toward achieving net-zero emissions, said Robin Edger, a lawyer who is the Toronto-based executive director at CAPE.
“Depending on your driving habits, your house actually might leave more of a personal carbon footprint than your internal-combustion car,” Mr. Edger said in an interview. “This is an awareness-raising campaign to show that, along with switching to an electric vehicle or riding a bicycle, you can take action in your home to reduce your footprint.”
Since the 1970s, natural gas has been characterized by Canadian energy companies as a clean-burning fuel for heating, compared with having to rely on underground oil tanks and dealing with the hazards of oil leaking into soil.
But over the past couple of years, climate activists have increasingly argued that as energy sources evolve, homeowners should decrease their impact on the climate by rejecting natural gas and switching to electricity. In Canada, that switch makes sense in provinces that generate low-carbon electricity, such as British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, Mr. Edger said.
Members of CAPE emphasize that natural gas is a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming, in contrast to renewable energy such as hydroelectricity, solar and wind power. The group’s playbook for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide also includes driving vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries or hydrogen fuel cells instead of internal-combustion engines.
If all goes well with the initiative called Switch It Up B.C., CAPE hopes to roll out the campaign to Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
More than 90 per cent of the power grids in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec rely on supplies of hydroelectricity, while Ontario gets more than 90 per cent of its electricity through nuclear plants, hydroelectricity and wind power.
Critics are casting natural gas as the lesser of three climate evils when stacked up against coal and oil, but an evil nevertheless with methane leaks at wellheads.
Industry officials counter that natural gas needs to be part of the solution to fight climate change because the fuel is better for air quality when replacing thermal coal at power plants to generate electricity.
When combusted, natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide compared with thermal coal, according to the power sector. In 2015, the Alberta government served notice that by 2030, coal-burning power plants in the province would convert to natural gas for generating electricity.
CAPE isn’t targeting Alberta for the Switch It Up campaign because the province will become heavily dependent on electricity generated by gas-fired plants within 10 years, so even if households hooked up to natural gas end up switching to electricity, it wouldn’t reduce Alberta’s carbon emissions by much.
Industry players argue that in the quest to meet the federal government’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, natural gas is needed to play a crucial role as a “bridge fuel” – natural gas would serve as a bridge over the next 30 years as Canada crosses from the old economy’s fossil fuels to the new economy’s renewable energy.
FortisBC is promoting the affordability of natural gas compared with electricity. “Natural gas is about one-third the cost of electricity in B.C., so it’s a great energy choice for British Columbians who want to save money,” according to a posting by FortisBC on its website. “B.C.’s natural gas has an important role to play as our province moves toward a lower-carbon future. Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel.”
FortisBC said there is also growing interest in renewable natural gas, which is derived from organic waste, and the future looks promising for hydrogen as an energy source.
Through a process called steam-methane reforming, natural gas is already being used to produce “grey hydrogen,” which emits water and carbon dioxide. Officials in the energy sector say a cleaner version, “blue hydrogen,” holds tremendous potential as an energy source because of carbon capture and storage.
The cleanest version, “green hydrogen,” requires renewable electricity and the electrolysis of water, but currently has high costs for production.
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