Lost in the daily headlines about the surging gas crisis is a much bigger, longer term story about the future of gas in residential and most commercial buildings: it shouldn’t exist.
Over recent weeks, since gas prices started rising – steeply in some cases – there’s been a new development on almost a daily basis.
Last week alone, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called an urgent meeting of state and federal energy ministers to discuss the crisis. Media reports suggested that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has put his state’s highly anticipated gas transition roadmap on hold until after the next state election.
Meanwhile, around 29 business and community groups have issued a joint statement calling for better energy efficiency, a transition to clean energy and more support for the vulnerable in response to the crisis.
These groups range from the Property Council and the Australian Industry Group, through to Australian Council of Social Service, the National Farmers’ Federation and Australian Conservation Foundation,
But beyond these headlines is a simple fact: most homes and many offices no longer need gas.
And the issue is starting to hit the airwaves for grass roots consumers – and voters.
ABC’s Radio National devoted a large segment to the issue on Tuesday morning discussing practical alternatives to gas in interviews with Jenny Edwards of Canberra based Lighthouse Architecture and Science and Frankie Muskovic, national policy manager at the Property Council. It also highlighted the hugely popular My Efficient Electric Home Facebook group, founded by Tim Forcey, which now has more than 56,000 members.
Electric alternatives, including reverse cycle airconditioners and heat pumps; induction cooktops and stoves; and electric or solar hot water systems can fill household needs, the listeners heard. And these appliances can all be powered with renewables and battery storage.
The big policy challenge for our political leaders is making the switch.
As energy expert Bruce Precious, who was previously the national manager of sustainability and property services at GPT group and is now principal consultant Six Capitals Consulting, told The Fifth Estate: “We need to start, urgently, a gradual transition.”
We don’t need gas to cook or heat our homes
The clear long-term solution to the current energy crisis, according to many energy experts, is to substitute gas appliances for their electric counterparts in homes and offices.
“There’s growing evidence that gas is an unnecessary fuel for the built environment,” Mr Precious said.
The need to make that transition is recognised by groups such as the Green Building Council of Australia, which only hands out its 6-star Green Star rating to buildings that are fully electric, draught sealed, energy efficient and powered by renewables.
Mr Precious said it is also reflected in the future scenarios predicted by the Australian Energy Market Operator and the Australian Energy Regulator.
“When [AEMO and the AEWR] are looking at their future scenarios, energy experts seem to say the most likely scenario is a step change scenario, which predicts an 85 per cent reduction in use of gas in homes by 2040, which is only 18 years away.”
“There was a Grattan Institute paper recently that suggested a moratorium on new connections to gas, for instance, because we’re building something that’s highly likely to become redundant.”
Retrofits are the missing piece of a puzzle
While building a new office, retail or residential building that only use electric appliances is relatively straightforward, removing gas from existing buildings poses more of a challenge.
“We’re on a really steep learning curve in terms of this retrofit piece now,” Mr Precious said.
“We should remember that there’s a there’s millions of homes and many, many thousands of buildings that are fully electric now. So it’s not something that’s foreign to us. The bit that’s unusual is converting a building that relies on gas at the moment across to electrification.”
The biggest challenges with retrofits involve finding the most appropriate technologies, the best locations, and the best ways of going about meeting a building’s energy needs without significant disruptions.
“Replacing boilers with heat pumps, in some situations, is not a simple plug and play solution. But it’s also something that we’re not expecting to have 100 per cent complete tomorrow.
“We’re going to see technology changes we’re going to see our understanding of applications of those technologies change. It’s going to be a gradual evolution that’s gonna be quite a revolution in that learning curve.”
Is green hydrogen the answer?
It can be tempting to think that green hydrogen is the best sustainable alternative to gas. But while green hydrogen will certainly have uses in some corners of the economy, it’s not needed in most commercial and residential buildings.
“Natural gas and renewable substitutes, of either biomethane or hydrogen, it seems, will likely have applications in other parts of our economy and communities. But it seems that it’s increasingly seen as an unnecessary fuel for the built environment.”
Its biggest drawback is it relies on renewables for its production. If we have enough renewable electricity to create hydrogen, why not use that power directly for cooking or heating?
“The future price of hydrogen will very much rely on the price of renewable electricity. Therefore if there is a future where we have cost effective or cheap green hydrogen, then we must have really cheap, renewable electricity,” Mr Precious said.
“It seems to me for homes and buildings where the energy needs are to heat the air to 22 degrees, basically for comfort; to warm water up to 45 or so for washing and hygiene; and for cooking on stove tops where we have induction induction stove tops it seems to me that we just don’t need hydrogen for those services.
“And if we were to go down a hydrogen path, then there would be a significant expense in upgrading the gas network, upgrading every appliance, every meter, all of the infrastructure that goes along with that.” This is because the molecular nature of hydrogen does not suit the existing gas pipelines and would escape them.
Victoria puts gas reforms on hold – at least until after the election
Government policy, both at state and federal level, has a big role to play in helping businesses and households make the transition from gas appliances to all-electric.
So it can be disheartening to read reports this week that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has pushed back the release of the state’s Energy Transition Roadmap until after the next state election in November, rather than this month as originally planned.
The Fifth Estate sought clarification on this matter and heard from a Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning spokesperson said that “the Gas Substitution Roadmap will be released in due course”.
There’s a bright side: no gaslighting
The bright side, according to several industry sources The Fifth Estate spoke to, is that any delays to the policy release are likely to be an electoral campaign decision, rather than because the state government is abandoning its policy.
“What you have to keep in mind is that over 80 per cent of Victorian homes are connected to the gas network, which really means that over 80 per cent of Victorian voters are linked to gas issues,” RMIT senior industry fellow Alan Pears told The Fifth Estate.
“I’m not surprised that he [Andrews] put it on the back burner. Because at the same time, he can also say, ‘Well, we’re going through a process and it’s taking longer than we thought” and it probably is.
“Dan Andrews is basically in clearing the decks mode to make sure there’s no problems or a minimum number of problems ahead of the November election. I think we’ll be finding him announcing the opening of lots of railway crossing removals and all sorts of other things over the next 10 months.”
Victoria has three policies on the go
It’s worth noting that there are three separate policy processes around gas happening in Victoria. The first, the Gas Substitution Strategy run by DEWLP (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) is looking at ways to reduce carbon emissions in homes and industry.
There is a second parallel process, run separately by Infrastructure Victoria, exploring the policy implications of replacing gas or running hydrogen through gas pipes.
The third, which wrapped up last month, was run by state upper house’s Environment and Planning Committee looking at renewable energy in Victoria. The state government will be required to respond to its recommendations within six months.
“It means that the uncertainties will, of course, continue. But I’m not sure how quickly they would have been resolved anyway,” Mr Pears said.
The final piece of the puzzle is at the federal level. The key responses, advocated by many business and community groups, is to promote better energy efficiency, transition to clean energy and support the vulnerable.
“There are literally millions of reverse cycle airconditioners in Victorian homes that are not being used for heating. And if you run a reverse cycle air conditioner instead of gas fired electricity, you actually use quite a bit less gas,” Mr Pears said.
“What would actually be a helpful strategy is if the government ran an advertising campaign encouraging people to use their reverse cycle airconditioners, after cleaning the filters of their units.”
While emphasising that he won’t comment on the most recent meetings between federal and state energy ministers, Mr Precious said over the long term the federal government would need to provide leadership through the transition to all-electric.
“Certainly, from a government perspective, there’s been very little guidance around the electrification piece, so while we might have some leaders doing it, my suggestion is that a large part of the market that’s pretty confused about what it’s supposed to do about gas,” he said.
“Now that can all move along over time, and without really clear leadership, it could lead to a whole bunch of gas consumers being significantly disadvantaged.
“Particularly in the home side, you’ve got social housing, people are doing rental homes, where equipment isn’t being changed over, for instance. Without government measures, then you would have people being left to carry the maintenance of the gas network.”
UPDATED 16 June 2022 to revert headline to the original.