What stops householders from electrifying?

Tim Forcey surveyed the My Efficient Electric Home Facebook group to understand the most common reasons stopping members from getting off gas.

I’m an engineer. I like to focus on what we can do rather than dwell on barriers that get in the way. Ask my son. Growing up, if he said, “Dad, I can’t do that”, I’d respond with, “Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you can do!” Since then, all of our children have gone on to do a lot, so that’s good.

When it comes to helping households reduce their gas use, I often focus on the lowest hanging fruit. This usually means showing people how to use their reverse cycle air conditioners for heating. As I’ve been explaining for eight years now, this saves people quite a lot of money and significantly reduces our dependence on fossil gas.

However, at your home, you may be able to go further. Replace your gas water heater with a heat pump, replace your ghastly looking gas cooktop with a snazzy modern electric cooktop, and say goodbye to the gas bill entirely. This will result in more household savings, more greenhouse gas emission reductions, and health and safety benefits.

But as some households start down the electrification/degasification path, they might arrive at a barrier that seems insurmountable.

What are the barriers to electrifying our homes?

I started My Efficient Electric Home (MEEH) to spread the word about how people could save money by heating their homes with reverse cycle air conditioners. Inevitably, the group’s remit expanded beyond that single topic, and likewise, the group has grown to over 106,000 members. Watching on a daily basis what is posted in that online group, we have evidence now that thousands and thousands of households have made good progress reducing their gas use.

The gas supply companies and the authorities that track these things, such as the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), are starting to see smaller and smaller volumes of gas being burned in Australian homes each year. Although an unfortunate number of new homes continue to be connected to the gas grid, in some places, this is being matched by a remarkable number of existing homes that have disconnected.

Recently announced new rules in the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria will stop the wholesale connection of new homes to the gas grid, so we will soon see a dramatic turnaround in the number of homes connected to gas in those jurisdictions.

Policymakers and influencers are now asking, “What are the barriers to millions of existing households leaving the gas grid promptly and completely?”

That’s a very good question to be asking. To try to help answer it, I posted a poll at MEEH.

The question went something like this:

Do you expect to fully electrify/degasify your home, successfully overcoming all the barriers you encounter, or indeed have you already done so? Yes, or no?

(Note: this poll was meant to be about the house/home only, ignoring electric vehicles.)

If the answer was, “No, my household is not yet fully electrified,” the poll then asked members to describe the specific barrier that was stopping them.

Although the poll will continue to run, here are some results from the first day or two.

First of all, we’ve had 735 members respond so far. For me, that’s enough of a response for this to be a statistically interesting result.

One could ask, with over 100,000 members, why only 735 responses? I don’t have an answer to that question other than to say some people must have better things to do with their lives than look at Facebook all the time!

74 per cent electrification rate

Of the 735 responses, 545 reported that they had overcome all barriers and fully electrified/degasified their homes. I’m pleased with that. That’s nearly three quarters, 74 per cent, quite a high percentage, I think.

Yes, I realise this is not a scientifically unbiased poll, but I expect that most of those 735 households would not have lived in fully electrified homes when they first joined My Efficient Electric Home. It’s pleasing to see that some people managed to use the information provided by fellow group members to overcome any barriers.

As you will see, a key barrier is simply having the money to make changes, so it’s pleasing that these people chose to use some of their available funds to improve their homes in this way.

26 per cent still stuck on gas

But what about the remaining 26 per cent? Those households are reporting that they are stuck at some barrier and have not been able to fully ditch the gas grid.

I assume some of these households will have reduced their gas use somewhat, perhaps by heating at least part of their house with a reverse cycle air conditioner at times; the poll didn’t ask about partial home degasification.

Rather, the poll asked if households could make it to the end of the full electrification journey. Among the 735 responding households 190 are stuck at a barrier. What barriers did they report?

Here is a paraphrased “Top 11” list, roughly in the order from the most responses to fewer responses:

  1. I don’t have the money to make the required changes at this time.
  2. I’m a renter, and I’m unlikely to ever see the landlord make upgrades.
  3. I don’t have the physical space to replace a “tankless” gas hot water service with a hot water heat pump.
  4. I’m in an apartment block (strata). To change the hot water supply or to upgrade the electricity supply as needed for an electric cooktop will require cooperation from the owners and the owner’s corporation manager, which will be difficult to achieve.
  5. I recently spent money on new gas appliances (oops!), so now it seems like a waste to not use this new equipment.
  6. My partner likes cooking over gas.
  7. We’re not certain how long we’ll stay in this home.
  8. We’re spending our money and mental energy on other home efficiency things right now such as insulation, draught proofing, and window coverings, which are probably higher priority when it comes to comfort, health, and money and emissions savings.
  9. For my home, it will be tricky/invasive/costly to physically install the inside and outside parts of a reverse cycle air conditioner and to install the refrigerant piping to connect them up.
  10. We like the radiant feel of hydronic heating, and it’s expensive to convert that to a heat pump.
  11. The electrical supply to our home is too small (too few amps), and I’ve been told it’s going to be tricky/invasive/costly to upgrade. Someone told me I might need three phase power.

Many members at MEEH have much of the info they need

Interestingly, what didn’t come up much in the poll is this potential barrier:

“I don’t know what steps I should take to get started.”

In the broader community, I know the millions of households still using gas indeed do need information about the “whys” and “hows”. But this poll indicates that, at least for the members at MEEH, they’ve worked out it’s a good place to get the information they need.

Frustratingly, some members responded that they had recently made poor decisions investing in gas appliances simply because they found out about MEEH only after. Sad but true!

Investigating some barriers finds they aren’t barriers after all

Of course, not every member at MEEH obtains perfect knowledge immediately upon joining the group. Looking at the above list of 11 barriers suggested repeatedly by members, I think that after some investigation, these will be found to be non barriers for some households.

For example, a renter or strata dweller might find it attractive to start using a portable induction cooktop (plugs into the wall socket) while waiting for the landlord or body corporate manager to consider permanent options.

Don’t have space in a small garden for a hot water heat pump? One brand of heat pump can go on the roof.

Do you think you are going to need three phase (3X) electricity supply before your house is fully electrified? Chances are, you do not. Most fully electrified homes are not supplied with three phases.

Think it’s wise to continue using expensive to operate gas appliances simply because you purchased them recently? It’s probably not a good idea to keep using something that is costing you.

Think the feel of aircon heating has to be inferior to hydronic? This doesn’t have to be the case, especially if you experiment with air con settings and possibly if some attention and money is invested in upgrading your home’s thermal envelope (e.g. insulation, draught proofing, window coverings).

And so forth.

How are we going to break down barriers to electrifying our homes?

Because we need to degasify all Australian homes still on gas, for climate stabilisation reasons and cost of living and health/safety reasons, what more do we have to do to break down any real barriers?

I’ve not got a long list of policy ideas in my head, nor the space in this article to write much more, so I’ll leave a lot of that to either another article or to other researchers and policymakers. Looking only at the top two items on the list, efforts to assist households with zero interest loans or other financing mechanisms are critical, as is working out how to move landlords along the path to electrifying their investment properties.

Clearly, sweeping reforms such as those taken by the ACT and Victorian governments to not connect new homes to gas will help new home buyers immensely. It’s sad when new home buyers have taken on big mortgages to secure a new home, only to find they’re going to need to spend more money to save money – by ditching gas fired space and water heating to reduce their children’s asthma risk caused by gas cooking, or to obtain an effective refrigerative cooling system (versus the evaporative cooling which is often a volume builders outdated default recipe).

Further, the mere announcement of such policies ensures home electrification remains a hot media topic, which has the side benefit of clueing the public into the idea that getting their home off gas is something they should look into.

Another big impact reform recently suggested by IEEFA (Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis) would be to announce an end to the sale of all household gas equipment in five years’ time. The Australian government making that sort of announcement tomorrow would certainly make headlines. I’d like to see that.

This article was first published by The Fifth Estate. You can read it here.

Tim Forcey
Independent Energy Advisor & Researcher
November 19, 2023
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