Down the road, there is likely to be an electric vehicle in your future. From many angles, whether it is comfort, convenience, saving money or high-tech whiz-bangery, millions of drivers around the world are switching on.
In Australia, electric vehicle deployment lags, whether because of limited choice in the showrooms, still cheap petrol, or a lack of government support. Though while the future can be delayed, it’s hard to stop.
But while we are electrifying things, why stop with your car? What about your home? Will there also be an all-electric home in your future?
More than 50 years ago, town planners and home designers dreamt of all-electric homes, supported by coal, nuclear and hydro-generated electricity that would be “too cheap to meter”.
In succeeding decades, electricity generated from Australian coal was cheap. Recognising the dangers of climate change was still over the horizon.
But what was also cheap in Australia was gas. A nuisance to the oil explorers in the Bass Strait and elsewhere, gas was something to be quickly disposed, lest it impede the speed at which the offshore rigs could pump out crude oil.
Thus gas became a cheap and plentiful energy source for Australian homes. We were all “cooking with gas”. We also burned gas to provide a hot shower and a toasty-warm lounge room. The thought of an all-electric-home would stay on the shelf for a few more years.
But now, here we are in what was once the future. As was widely reported over the last few weeks, gas is no longer cheap, with around 80 per cent of all the gas produced in Australia now exported overseas. Wholesale gas prices doubled, tripled, and then quadrupled. Fortunately, even at these high gas prices, some of us can still afford to “cook with gas”. But also fortunately, home appliances that economically harvest and use renewable energy have many people assessing their options. Has the time for the all-electric Australian home finally arrived?
The recent Sustainable House Day featured 126 gas-free homes across Australia, demonstrating there is an all-electric home near you. With the social and environmental concerns surrounding coal seam gas and other forms of unconventionally produced gas, it is now difficult to associate burning gas with the idea of a “sustainable” home.
But an even larger driver for many Australians is the money to be saved by cutting gas use and even fully disconnecting from the gas grid. On social media, homeowners and renters are vigorously discussing the most cost-effective ways to move their homes off gas.
So what’s in an all-electric home and how much money can be saved?
Commencing in earnest 10 years ago, rooftop solar photovoltaic panels are now widespread across Australia, generating electricity equivalent to several large coal plants. Pre-dating even the PV panels, rooftop solar-thermal water heating is well known. Heating water is one way to store the sun’s energy for later use, as are electrical batteries. Though still pricey, batteries are the latest “thing” for early adopters.
So it’s no secret that homes can generate and store their own electricity and hot water. Electric induction cooktops are winning over the foodies, so no more cooking with gas!
But that still leaves this question: what can compete with gas when it comes to staying toasty warm on those dreary Melbourne nights and frosty Katoomba mornings? The answer is the reverse-cycle air conditioner as we refer to it on mainland Australia, a device more commonly known as a “heat pump” in Tasmania, New Zealand, Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Though often confused with simple yet costly-to-operate resistive-electric heating, a reverse-cycle air conditioner uses a refrigerant system to harvest free renewable heat from the air outside your home. Even if the thermometer registers below freezing outside on a cold Canberra morning, modern heat pumps incorporating “inverter” technology and modified refrigerants can operate down to temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees. They are now widely used in cold regions such as in the US state of Maine or Nova Scotia, Canada.
It is because a heat pump harvests “free heat” from the air outside your home that the cost of using one can be as little as one-third the cost of burning gas. Studies published by the University of Melbourne found that a large Melbourne home could save as much as $658 over the course of a single winter heating season. To realise these savings, people simply need to select the “heat” button on air conditioners they may already own, but have never used for heating.
Even greater savings are possible if a home can become fully gas-free, permanently disconnect from the gas grid and dispense with connection charges amounting to hundreds of dollars each year.
The future is electric. Soon the way we burned stuff in and around our homes will be seen as so “last-century”.
Tim Forcey is an energy advisor based in Melbourne.