What we did
First thing we did — anticipating the electrification process risked substantially ramping up our monthly electric bills — we contracted with a local solar company, Solar Connect, and installed a bank of 14 panels on our garage roof in the summer of 2019. Solar panels aren’t cheap, but the cost is coming down, and ours will pay for themselves in lower monthly electricity bills at least three times over the course of their working lives. BC Hydro offers a simple net metering program, whereby any electricity we produce in excess of our monthly needs is credited to our BC Hydro account. In the peak of summer, we are producing more electricity than we consume and accumulating a modest credit, which we drawdown in the winter.
Given that British Columbia’s electricity system is hydro-based, the solar panels don’t directly lower GHGs in our province (in provinces still using coal and/or gas generated electricity, the solar panels would indeed help to lower GHGs). However, in addition to keeping our monthly electric bill in check, the solar panels mean we are providing a public benefit; even after fuel-swapping our home, we have not significantly increased our draw on the BC Hydro system. Were many homes and buildings to do this, it would save the public utility from needing to undertake huge new investments in new electricity production capacity. That said, this step was not necessary to get the gas out of our homes, so consider it an extra.
Second, we took out the gas stove and replaced it with a new induction electric stove. I know there are many of you who swear by the joys of cooking with gas. To which I say — you should try induction electric. As many chefs will tell you, they’re fabulous! Induction stoves are nothing like the old coil electrics. Like gas, they instantly provide heat, and at just the desired level. And they are safer than old electric or gas stoves because induction operates by magnetic connection between the stove surface and the bottom of a pot or frying pan. Once a pot is removed, it instantly cools, dramatically lowering risks of fire or injury. And no more breathing gas fumes.
Next, in May 2020, the heat pump system was installed by local contractor Ashton Plumbing and Heating, a process that took only a couple of days. The inside gas lines were sealed shut. Our gas boiler and accompanying hot water tank were removed, replaced by a Mitsubishi 4-zone heat pump system (with one wall-mounted unit downstairs and one in each of three bedrooms upstairs.) The external unit is very quiet, and four pipes carry the hot or cold air from that main unit to the wall-mounted units indoors. (The pipes are very discrete, running along one back external wall and then through the attic to reach the two farthest units.)
At the same time, we installed a conventional electric hot water heater (there are also heat pump options for hot water, but we don’t go that route).
The final reno: we ripped out the gas fireplace and replaced it with some beautiful built-in bookshelves that we like much better.
With all that done, the last — and deeply satisfying — act: we shut off the gas line to our home and cancelled our FortisBC account.
The costs and benefits
So, what did it all cost? Here’s the breakdown of the elements needed to get the gas out of our home:
The price of the heat pump may elicit some sticker shock. But, both the BC government and the City of Vancouver now provide rebates for homes converting from gas to electric systems. At the time we did our fuel swap, those rebates amounted to $3,000 and $6,000 respectively, bringing the net cost of the heat pump down to $8,000. The province has since sweetened the pot with a further $3,000 in rebates, so today, the net cost would have been $5,000. And consider that in five years or so, it probably would have been time to replace the boiler regardless, the cost of which would approach that net heat pump price.
With respect to monthly operating costs…
The operating cost of the electric hot water heater has been negligible (we wash clothes in cold water and generally hand wash the dishes). Nor did I notice an increase when we switched from the gas stove to induction electric.
It’s really only been at the peak of winter that we saw a notable jump in our electric bill; with our solar panels delivering only modest power in the darker winter months and the heat pump operating all day, our electricity draw certainly went up. Comparing our winter BC Hydro bills from before and after the switch, minus what we used to pay in gas, the costs seem to be up $10 to $20 a month.
Overall, however, in the first full year since the swap, our Hydro bill averaged $105 a month, about $25 more than before this journey began. But we no longer have a Fortis gas bill of ~$50 a month, so on net, we are spending about $25 less in monthly utility costs, even with the addition of summer air conditioning, but helped by the solar panels. We also charge our electric car on that bill (although we don’t drive much, so those costs are minimal).
Over time, the cost advantage of electricity over gas will likely increase as the escalating carbon price over the next 10 years hikes the cost of gas (although, on the flip side, we also need our governments to be smart about their electricity development plans, so as not to drive up electricity costs and perversely discourage fuel-swapping off fossil fuels).
No doubt this conversion has also increased the value of our home, as future owners will not face the inevitable need to fuel swap down the road once robust climate policies are in place, and they will benefit from the upfront capital costs we assumed for the solar panels and heat pump.
And the greatest benefit — we’ve eliminated GHG emissions from our home, cancelled our account with FortisBC, and the system works wonderfully! We have cosy heat in the winter (no need for a back-up heat source in coastal B.C.). And the cooling in the summer — a benefit to which we paid little heed at the start of this process — is incredibly effective; during last summer’s deadly heat dome, our home remained very comfortable, and numerous friends and family ended up visiting for a few hours of respite to escape the record temperatures.
Also, our kids seem proud of the new system and like showing it to visitors, and, well, that’s worth a lot.
No substitute for collective action
As stated up front, the path to victory on the climate emergency will not be won by encouraging and incentivizing households to voluntarily do what we did. While individual households all have their part to play, confronting the climate crisis requires collective and state-led action. As my family’s conversion journey makes clear, the process can be complicated and it is costly, and if we are hoping everyone will do this on their own, we’re going to lose the climate fight.
Why is there no escaping government action?
First, there is little point converting our homes and vehicles to electricity if that electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal or gas. I live in B.C., which thankfully means the electricity is generated virtually entirely from renewable power. But that’s not yet true in most jurisdictions. Making that reality a widespread one isn’t something any of us can achieve on our own, but only by collectively demanding such changes to our electricity infrastructure.
Second, we need to make switching to electric heat pumps simpler and much more affordable, especially for lower-income families. Government rebates help, but not enough. What if we had a new Crown corporation (or a subsidiary of BC Hydro) or a public enterprise of some sort that was mass-producing GHG-free electric heat pumps and employing an army of installers? With the profit margins removed and the gains that come from economies of scale, the price of the heat pumps would come down. And the installers could come to our homes and simplify the process, giving us clear advice without each of us having to wonder which contractor was taking the least advantage of us.
Third, public financing innovations would also help with the upfront capital costs. Most people don’t have the cash on hand for these purchases. Also, one factor discouraging the purchase of solar panels and heat pumps is some people worry that if they end up selling their home within a few years, a future owner will realize most of the cost savings of these investments. Imagine if, instead, financing for these large purchases were provided by public utilities like BC Hydro, and loans were carried and paid back over time on one’s monthly utility bill. Meaning, the capital cost and loans would stay with the building, not the original purchaser, as the benefits flow to whomever owns the home at the time.
Under any future scenario, as we confront the climate crisis, energy costs are going up, and thus, issues of energy poverty and cost stress for lower and middle-income households is an issue that needs to be mitigated. And that’s something we can only do together.
Finally, while all this encouragement and financial assistance is needed (policy carrots), fuel swapping can’t be left to voluntary goodwill. We also need the state to set clear near-term dates by which fuel-swapping will be mandatory (the policy sticks). Tackling the climate crisis and eliminating GHGs from our homes isn’t optional. We need to get this done.
Three months after cancelling our gas account, we received a letter from FortisBC. Well, the red ink text we added in an irate effort to “fix” the letter and share it — widely — on social media. Governments need to crack down on insidious efforts like this by the gas companies to discourage electrification efforts, as I outlined in this previous column. Gas companies like FortisBC are regulated monopolies, and as such, should not be allowed to block progress on the task of our lives.
This content was originally published here.