Electricity or gas: what’s cleaner?

Back in May, I talked about the environmental advantages of electricity over natural gas for space heating. Most people think electricity is the last fuel you should use to heat your home. In provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, they’re right: you’d be better off using natural gas. But electricity in Newfoundland-Labrador, British Columbia, Manitoba, and especially Quebec, is as much as 25 times as clean as natural gas.

In Ontario, my home province, we’re right at the point where electricity from our power system is as clean as natural gas in terms of emissions per British Thermal Unit (see Electric Power Statistics). If Ontario adds more low- or non-emitting generation to the system, then electricity would be much cleaner than gas. And that’s on the basis of average annual system emission intensity. An electric furnace, running in Ontario only during off-peak hours (and powered with batteries during peak hours), would have a far lower environmental impact than even the highest-efficiency gas model.

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether—and if so how—Canada can make the transition to a low-carbon energy economy. We can, and it depends on electricity. As I have illustrated elsewhere (see article), an electric furnace is easier on the environment than an equivalent gas-powered model depending on which province you get your electricity from.

Energy policy should, therefore, be to encourage low- or non-emitting generation and encourage greater uptake of electric powered equipment.

Is that what’s happening? In the current Ontario election campaign, the two biggest political parties say they will at least maintain nuclear generation in its present proportion. Since the emission intensity of a power system is what determines the environmental friendliness of electric-powered equipment, I’d say this is a good start.

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Randal Leavitt
15 years ago

We live in cities that are hard to maintain due to complex redundancy. If we removed all the heating gas pipes it would be lot easier and safer to maintain city structures. Since electricity can be used to heat and cool buildings, and cooling is a modern necessity, it would be simpler to retain the electrical connections and get rid of the gas pipes. Similarly, using electricity to power transportation would make our cities better by eliminating all the gasoline refuelling stations. We should use a lot more electricity in our cities – it is cleaner, safer, and more more versatile than our current practices.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

Excellent points, Randal. I suspect the mainstream environmental movement would frown upon such prescriptions, seeing as they are more about increasing use of natural gas than about reducing emissions.