gas heater living room

There’s a simple and highly effective solution that will save you dollars and health this winter. It’s simple: switch your split reverse-cycle airconditioner to “heat” and turn off the gas. 

Australians living in the cooler climates burn a lot of gas in winter. If we burn less, we can save money on our household budgets, reduce pollution, reduce peak gas demand, and avoid spending billions expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

For years, electricity-system planners focused on supplying ever-growing electricity demand. But as peak demand became more costly, some took a different approach. Planners, regulators, and energy businesses started to pay attention to electricity demand-side measures. They worked out ways to reduce electricity demand at critical peak times.

We can do the same with gas.

Every winter in eastern Australia, we see a broad peak in gas demand. The cost to meet peak gas demand is growing. Sure, pipeliners are happy to expand the gas pipelines supplying coal seam gas from Queensland. Gas producers are keen to supply expensive gas by dewatering aquifers and drilling hundreds of wells into the coal seams beneath the New South Wales Pillaga State Forest and neighbouring farmlands.

Gas importers envision supplying vaporised gas from floating liquid-gas import terminals permanently docked in Geelong and in Westernport Bay.

Supply supply supply. Who will want to pay for this new fossil fuel infrastructure?

But there is another more sensible way. As eventually occurred in the electricity industry, we could tackle winter peak gas demand. How? By reducing winter gas demand. We’d save householders and businesses money. We’d reduce pollution. And we’d not have to spend billions of dollars on more fossil fuel infrastructure.

Win win win

A few winters ago at the University of Melbourne, we showed how people could save money by turning to their reverse-cycle airconditioners for space heating, rather than continuing to burn gas. Reverse-cycle air cons can be a cheap source of space heating. The refrigerant system contained within can be run in reverse in winter to extract free renewable heat from the thin air outside your house, even on the coldest mornings.

A good thing about free heat is that no one can bill you for it.

A social media group that’s now 18,000 strong

In my own Melbourne house, we’ve been heating for years now with reverse-cycle air cons (heat pumps) at about one-third the cost of what we used to spend to run the ducted gas heating.

The same heat pump technology is used to heat water.  Add an electric induction cooktop to a home and millions of Australian homes could become safer, healthier, and cheaper to operate when they fully disconnect from the gas grid.

We started a social media group called “My Efficient Electric Home” to spread the word about the household budget savings and other advantages we identified at the University of Melbourne. Since then, more than18,000 households have joined in.

More than 300 new members join each week. At this group, Australians are helping each other in dozens of ways beyond just heat pumps, from draught-proofing, to insulating, to getting more out of the solar PV panels on their roof.

Our research found that the potential savings for the all-electric no-gas home total into the hundreds of millions of dollars each winter. And this is before considering how we can avoid the costs of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

But there is no need to expand gas supplies if we take simple actions. We can turn to cheaper money-saving options, such as finding the “heat button” on our reverse-cycle airconditioners.

The ACT leads

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has been an Australian leader in switching their electricity supplies from fossil to renewable options. Now the ACT is focused on switching homes off gas, with the ACT government offering incentives to homeowners heating with reverse-cycle airconditioners.

Other Australian governments need to follow the ACT and do more to move homes off gas and to avoid anyone having to spend more on fossil gas-supply infrastructure.

Victoria is on the outer

Bizarrely, the Victorian government makes it difficult for people wishing to install heat pumps for water heating, while continuing to support out-dated gas-boosted solar-thermal hot water systems. The problem with gas-boosted solar-thermal in winter is that the solar part does very little while the the gas “boost” becomes a base-load demand for gas at the worst possible time.

This winter, Energy Safe Victoria (a Victorian government entity) is running television ads highlighting the dangers of heating living spaces by burning gas, such as the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, the Victorian government has not taken then next step to tell people about the cheaper and safer space-heating alternative: the reverse-cycle airconditioner. This would be particularly useful information right now as Victorians spend more time at home this winter avoiding Covid-19.

We don’t need more fossil gas drilling and gas supply infrastructure. Australians do need to be informed of the advantages of moving their homes off gas.

Tim Forcey is an energy advisor, researcher, author, engineer who has worked with the University of Melbourne as an energy adviser, a principal with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and previously with BHP an ExxonMobil.

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