The world is going green. Business- and homeowners are paying more attention to how they power their homes and their lives, with gas being at the center of the debate. A recent study by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) titled “Gas vs Electric: Heating System Fuel Source Implications on Low-Energy Single-Family Dwelling Sustainability Performance” compared all-electric residential systems to gas-fired systems in new buildings built to the state of Maryland’s code — and came to a surprising conclusion.
“Results suggest that low natural gas prices provide incentives to install natural-gas fired equipment when minimizing life-cycle costs is the primary goal,” read the study. “Meanwhile, electric heating equipment is likely to perform better economically in reaching net-zero energy performance, but with higher environmental impacts.”
In short, the NSIT found that many all-electric systems are actually more harmful to the environment than gas-fired systems. This is a controversial statement, to say the least, and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) — an organization dedicated to research, publication, consulting, and lecturing in the general field of sustainability — is leading the charge against NIST’s claims.
RMI senior associate Sherri Billimoria broke down the three main issues with NIST’s publication.
- It relies on old and no longer relevant data about the percent of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants.
- It fails to consider the most efficient electric appliances available on the market.
- It makes assertions that buildings powered by electricity are more expensive than fossil-fuel fired buildings without providing sufficient supporting evidence or addressing other studies.
The study was based in Maryland, and Billimoria doesn’t hesitate to point out the major discrepancies: the article stated that the higher emissions impact from heat pumps is due to “the significant share of coal used for electricity generation in Maryland (greater than 50 percent),” when, according to the Energy Information Administration, coal use only comprised 19% of Maryland’s electricity mix.
RMI’s counterclaims seem to contain more concrete data than NIST’s study, which is based on several assumptions. Homeowners, both in Maryland and the rest of the nation, are only really able to focus on the fact that heating and cooling make up 54% of annual utility bills; if you can rely on a heat pump to perform better economically and believe Billimoria’s statement that “in all but the most coal-heavy regions, heat pumps provide significant carbon savings compared with natural gas alternatives,” then you’ve got the best of both worlds.
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