We can’t afford to pass up electrification, a climate solution with the potential to make the air we breathe cleaner and drastically reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are pushing greenwashed alternatives to electrifying our homes and buildings like hydrogen. Let’s look at the highly efficient technology used in today’s electric appliances and debunk some common myths about hydrogen.
Trusted Technology, Innovated
Change can be scary, and we know that switching from fossil-fuel-powered appliances to clean electric ones might be intimidating. The good news is that most of us already have a familiar heat pump in our homes: our refrigerators. The science that allows our refrigerators to keep our food cool is the same technology behind heat pumps used to electrify home heating and cooling systems, water heaters, and other heat pump appliances.
A heat pump simply uses electricity to move heat from one place to another. For example, when in cooling mode, it moves the heat on a hot day from inside to outside your home, and the process is reversed during winter months to provide sustainable heating. Heat pumps simply move air instead of creating hot or cold air, making them more sustainable and efficient than their fossil-fueled counterparts. Think of it this way: we use less energy to move a chair from one room to the other than building a new chair.
While a typical Energy Star gas water heater runs at 67% efficiency, wasting a ton of electricity to heat up your showers and baths, modern heat pump appliances run at efficiencies between 200 and 300 percent.
This technology has existed for a long time, but innovation means that it can run at increasingly efficient levels, with incredible potential to save you on your monthly utility bills. Modern heat pumps can also be used in places where sub-zero temperatures persist, making them a good choice in almost every type of climate.
Electrification Is More Possible And Urgent Than Ever
The shift to electrification is more and more feasible because a quarter of U.S. homes are already all-electric, and almost half of U.S. single-family homes are adequately wired to electrify everything. Continuing to burn methane gas in existing buildings and installing gas infrastructure in new buildings instead of switching to all-electric buildings is repeating the same mistake and expecting a different result.
If a San Diego homeowner installs a new gas furnace today, it will continue to spew emissions in the air at the same rate for its 20-year lifespan or until the appliance is replaced. If that same homeowner installs a heat pump powered by electricity instead, the appliance (and building) would have lower greenhouse gas emissions starting immediately, and emissions would decrease as our electricity is increasingly powered by renewable energy sources, like solar and wind power. The heat pump could reach near zero emissions on the day it is installed if the home opts into 100% clean electricity through one of our region’s Community Choice Energy programs: San Diego Community Power or the Clean Energy Alliance.
Although most of us don’t spend time thinking about or looking at our water heaters, the impact of these appliances is significant. Replacing them with clean, electric heat pump water heaters is an important climate solution.
Putting heat pumps in all single-family homes across the U.S. would reduce emissions at a level equal to taking 32 million gas-guzzling cars off the road. That is the equivalent of almost every car currently driving in California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas combined.
Imagine how much cleaner the air we breathe would be without those cars spewing pollution as they drive past our homes. The impact is the same, except our appliances leak those emissions directly into our homes and communities daily. As we explained in our previous blog, electrification is good for our wallets, planet, public health, and quality of life.
Hydrogen: A Far Cry From A Scalable Solution
So, if electrification is a proven, efficient technology, why are fossil fuel companies pushing untested hydrogen? The answer is that investor-owned utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) are interested in making money for shareholders, not protecting our communities and public health. Pursuing hydrogen is a way for them to maintain and expand their fossil fuel infrastructure while greenwashing another unsafe fuel for their benefit.
A recent Physicians for Social Responsibility report outlines the many risks to the climate and our health if we continue down the hydrogen path. Despite outcry from energy, equity, and economic experts, investor-owned utilities are pushing forward with their plans for hydrogen.
In the past month, UCSD and UCI have partnered with SoCalGas and SDG&E on pilot projects to mix hydrogen and methane gas to power buildings on their campuses, including in student housing. This is alarming because hydrogen is a false climate solution, unsafe, inefficient, and not economical.
Hydrogen Is A False Climate Solution
Most hydrogen is currently made using fossil fuels resulting in global hydrogen production being a massive climate polluter in and of itself, creating greater emissions than the entire country of Germany.
Green hydrogen—the sustainable version which is produced using renewable energy—accounts for less than 0.02% of the hydrogen produced in the world.
Green hydrogen is not widely available, which means dirty hydrogen is much more likely to be used. To use hydrogen to power homes and buildings without replacing ALL of our existing pipelines, appliances, and fixtures, it must be mixed with methane gas with no more than 20% hydrogen in the mix. In this scenario, most of the fuel we will use for so-called clean hydrogen will actually be methane gas, getting us no closer to reaching our climate goals.
Hydrogen Is A Health & Safety Hazard
SDG&E touts hydrogen as a “clean fuel,” but it increases exposure to harmful nitrogen oxide pollutants.
Hydrogen is more flammable than methane gas and can generate pressures high enough to rupture equipment, exploding buildings and throwing shrapnel.
We cannot put communities on the line. University students and staff are not test subjects whose health and safety should be risked to test unsafe fuels. Endangering communities cannot be part of Southern California’s energy future.
Hydrogen Is Inefficient
A hydrogen-based heating system consumes 500-600 percent more energy than a heat pump. Why use renewable energy to produce green hydrogen for use in our buildings instead of powering them with renewable energy as electricity directly? Hydrogen is an inefficient extra step our region does not need.
Hydrogen Is Not Economical
Hydrogen will require us to overhaul our infrastructure. Because hydrogen is a different density and size than methane gas, using it in our homes and buildings would require an expensive overhaul of the current gas infrastructure. We’d also have to shovel more money to maintain the new infrastructure because hydrogen causes extreme wear-and-tear, further aging pipelines. It’s much easier and more cost-effective to electrify.
Electrification Is Our Proven Path Forward
The time to act to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis is now. We can’t waste time on fantasy solutions—like hydrogen in buildings—that don’t work and put communities at risk. Electrification is a proven climate strategy that will reduce emissions quickly as we get more heat pumps and induction stoves installed in our homes and buildings. It’s time to scale up and transition our homes and buildings into the spaces we need to thrive.