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Technology

Is Gas Really More Reliable than Renewables in an Emergency?

On the exaggerated danger of renewables in a blackout

New York City in a blackout.
Getty Images/Heatmap Illustration

Gas stoves and heating systems are two of the biggest ways that fossil fuels still find their way into our homes. Replacing them with electric stoves and heat pumps would go a long way to reducing our commercial and residential carbon footprint, which the EPA says amounts to 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. There’s one little problem: blackouts.

Without battery backup or a generator, everything powered by electricity goes dead when the grid goes down. With major blackouts a rising threat because of worsening wildfires and winter storms, and with our national demand for electricity rising, the plan to “electrify everything” in our homes (and the cars in our garages) may sound worrisome. Wouldn’t it leave us all more vulnerable — unable to heat our homes, cook our food, or drive anywhere when the power goes out?

Don’t be so sure.

At first blush, fossil fuels sound resilient. A fuel like natural gas is just sitting there, waiting to burn and unleash the power within, whether or not the electricity is on. A modern gas stove probably has an electric control panel and ignition, but a person can bypass a modern stove’s electric ignition by using a match to light the burners as long as gas is flowing. However, saying that gas stoves work during an emergency and electric ones won’t isn’t quite true, research scientist Pablo Duenas-Martinez of the MIT Energy Initiative told me.

For one thing, natural gas isn’t disaster-proof. The same kinds of calamities that can disrupt the power grid could also potentially break gas lines or damage the distribution system that moves the fossil fuel to your home. Duenas-Martinez also noted that the substations that compress and distribute gas themselves rely on electricity. So, in the case of widespread power outages, they may not be able to deliver gas to your stove or furnace.

As for that electric stove? Well, we already know how to make backup electricity. Buildings where the power must stay on 24/7, like hospitals and military installations have diesel-burning backup generators. Lots of private homeowners have them, too, and can run the heat pump and stove alongside the lights and the TV.

From a climate perspective, it somewhat defeats the purpose of “electrify everything” if we’re still reliant on dirty generators. Fortunately, cleaner ways to solve this problem are coming. Homes with solar panels could generate their own juice, at least during daylight hours. But improving our ability to store energy will be the game-changer.

Eminent MIT economist Richard Schmalensee told me that the cost of energy storage should fall over the years, especially as the transition to electric vehicles requires building lots and lots of batteries. Big batteries and other avant garde storage solutions will help the electricity system avoid some blackouts in the first place by storing energy when there is ample supply to use later during leaner times.

Better electric storage solutions will come to the house or neighborhood level, Duenas-Martinez said, with some neighborhoods installing backup systems to provide electricity to all their homes during a blackout. Individuals can install backup systems like the Tesla Powerwall, which stores energy from a home’s solar panels to use as backup power later. And a fast-growing number of Americans already have a way to store lots of electricity — the battery in their EV.

Electric cars present a curious case. On the one hand, gasoline-burning vehicles are blackout-proof, so one’s mobility is mostly unaffected by outage, emergency, or calamity (they drive on “guzzoline” in Mad Max, after all, not electrons). When most people have an EV, losing electricity becomes more of a predicament. “Currently, EVs may be more vulnerable than current fossil fueled vehicles because gas stations are very accessible, and the logistics chain for gasoline is well-established,” Duenas-Martinez said.

If an EV's battery is low when a big blackout happens, it may become essentially undriveable, and its voracious energy consumption compared to a toaster or a stove makes refilling the battery from backup systems more difficult. In the case of a sustained power outage, people may have to prioritize what to do with the limited backup power they have — whether they use it for heating and cooling, lights, TV, working on their laptops, doing the laundry, or charging EVs.

Yet EVs will become more resilient as infrastructure gets better, he says. With more chargers available at workplaces, public places, and people’s homes, our EVs will stay mostly charged more often than not. When the power goes out, they’ll have enough energy on hand for a few days’ worth of normal driving.

Plus, what if the car is your backup system? Although the feature is not ubiquitous among today’s models, it is possible to give EVs two-way charging, or the ability to plug in and run other items on the energy in the car’s battery. Ford F-150 Lightning commercials play up the truck’s potential to power an entire home for days at a time. According to researchers like Steven Low at Caltech (full disclosure: it’s also where I work), EV batteries could even be used to balance the grid of the future. While the cars sit parked and unused, they could feed electricity into the system in times of crisis and refill when there’s more to go around.

“The EV battery could help restore service by injecting electricity to the grid,” Duenas-Martinez said. “So, for short blackouts, I would not expect more vulnerability once more chargers are installed.”

When the culture wars came into the kitchen this past January, thanks to the controversy of (maybe) banning gas stoves, the ruckus started over indoor air pollution. But with gas stoves and heaters also a villian in the climate change story, and with electric stoves primed to become much less expensive than their gas counterparts, there’s ample reason to think gas stoves, like gasoline-powered cars, could be on their way out.

When they are, don’t worry — it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to make a hot pot of tea or drive to the grocery store in the middle of a blackout. But it will require a new way to think about home energy.

Yellow

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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