EVERETT — Chef Hugo Carranza’s birria — a red meat stew — simmers for some eight or nine hours on a gas stove to achieve its melt-in-your mouth goodness fit for El Mariachi’s tacos.
Carranza learned to cook on a steady flow of gas in his Los Angeles home, and has used gas for his business as it grew from an outdoor cart to a food truck and, finally, to the brick-and-mortar restaurant that opened in Everett six months ago.
“I moved here in 2012, and that’s when I first saw an electric stove,” Carranza said. His home, like many other Washingtonians’, is equipped with an electric cooktop.
In fact, only about a quarter of all homes in Washington state have natural gas stoves, compared with 70% in California, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. These remaining cooktops have increasingly become the target of politicians and those seeking to wean the region off fossil fuels driving climate change.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently announced it would look into the health risks associated with gas stoves. And Bloomberg News reported this month the federal commission may consider a ban on the beloved cooking fuel. The news ignited a renewed pro-gas campaign on the political right, and highlighted the coast-to-coast effort by progressive cities to halt the use of natural gas in homes and businesses.
While a federal ban on gas stoves is not yet on the table, some local and state leaders in Washington are working to phase out the fuel in new buildings and some leaders are working to ensure the energy transition doesn’t leave anyone behind.
Is my gas stove making me sick?
Scientists and federal agencies have long known about the health and environmental risks associated with the use of natural gas indoors.
Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In short, it’s exceptionally powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
When someone turns on their stove, it ignites the gas, burning as water vapor and carbon dioxide. But the stove emits even when turned off. About three-quarters of its methane emissions happen when the stove is turned off, according to a peer-reviewed study published last year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Over the course of one year, researchers found, leaks from gas cooktops in the U.S. have an impact comparable to the carbon dioxide emissions from roughly 500,000 passenger vehicles.
“A lot of us picture air pollution coming from the power plants or vehicles’ tailpipes,” said Emily Moore, director of climate and energy issues for Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank. “But many of us live with these mini-polluters inside of our own homes. We use them every day.”
In 2021, the EIA estimated that natural gas accounted for more than a third of the country’s total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
A consumption-based emissions inventory, including activities outside of the home like transportation and entertainment, found the typical King County household was responsible for an estimated 42 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Residential natural gas use accounted for nearly 5% of that.
More than 40% of King County households use natural gas for heating.
When natural gas is burned in furnaces for indoor heating or water heating, the fumes are dispersed into the surrounding neighborhood. But, when burned on a stovetop or in an oven, the fumes are emitted directly into the living space, which may not be adequately ventilated.
New studies have confirmed natural gas used in homes can leak cancer-causing chemicals, and revealed that nearly 13% of current childhood asthma cases in the U.S. can be attributed to gas stove use.
Last month, environmental, health and housing advocates asked the federal government to remove gas stoves from properties supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Children make up a disproportionate share of public housing residents, and are more susceptible than adults to respiratory ailments such as asthma. Black, Puerto Rican and Indigenous children, in particular, are more likely to suffer from the burden of asthma than white children.
How much does it cost to switch to electric?
A cold-turkey shift from natural gas raises equity concerns.
When natural gas customers leave, the utility will have to pass on the costs of maintaining pipelines to a smaller pool of customers. Those higher bills may disproportionately affect low-income households.
As Puget Sound Energy begins weaning its roughly 850,000 natural gas customers off the greenhouse gas, a typical customer can now expect to pay an extra $4.88 per month for the remainder of 2023. And the utility warned the costs of the state Climate Commitment Act will not be realized until late this year, and will likely lead to rate increases in 2024.
Front and Centered, a statewide environmental justice group led by communities of color, has been working to ensure communities who are most directly harmed by climate change and pollution are leading the way in decisions around the energy transition.
The group helped draft and pass the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, which requires utilities to provide energy assistance to low-income households, track equity effects and provide for meaningful public engagement.
“It’s a challenge,” said Mariel Thuraisingham, Front and Centered’s clean-energy policy lead. “We want to set a really high standard for how utilities are going to show up to make sure that that energy burden is reduced and their customers are not really negatively impacted by the fact that this transition to 100% clean is costly.”
About 10,000 Puget Sound Energy customers will be offered financial incentives to switch from gas to electric heat. And the federal Inflation Reduction Act opened up rebates in amounts up to $840 for a new electric or induction stove, and an additional $500 for people switching from gas or propane. Those rebates would make electric stoves pencil out to several hundred dollars.
But there’s no guarantee landlords will make the costly switch for their tenants, and the transition is still out of reach for many households.
Seattle and Shoreline have voted to begin phasing out natural gas in new buildings. And while similar efforts failed in the state Legislature, the state building code council voted last year to effectively ban natural gas heating in new commercial buildings, apartments and homes.
Washington is leading the charge in home electrification, but it has not happened without challenges. Much of the new rule-making doesn’t yet include stoves.
In Seattle, the energy code changes still allow commercial buildings and apartments to be constructed with natural gas for cooking. But electrical outlets were required nearby so electric stoves could be installed later.
“Gas companies have been putting a lot of effort into obscuring information about data from both a climate and health standpoint,” said Moore, with Sightline Institute. “And I think that’s a big part of the story.”
Washington state residents may have received mailers over the past few years explaining the benefits of natural gas, complicating their home energy decisions.
In 2019, natural gas companies in Washington and Oregon pledged $1 million on a public-relations campaign to promote their fuel as part of the region’s clean-energy future. The gas companies formed a coalition — the Partnership for Energy Progress — including unions, businesses and consumer groups to tout the benefits of natural gas and to help “prevent or defeat” initiatives that inhibit its use.
Read More:What we know about natural gas cooktops in WA