A reader living in New Hampshire recently asked us how clean her electricity is. She had read a controversial piece about natural gas in the Wall Street Journal. She had just switched to a high-efficiency natural gas boiler and was now concerned she had invested in the wrong solution to efficiently heat her home. We have posted our response here, because there are many people who could benefit from this information.
Why natural gas is better than electricity for heating.
- Efficiency – high efficiency natural gas boilers are around 95% efficient at turning the energy in the natural gas into usable heat. Typical electric heaters (resistive units – NOT heat pumps) are about 100% efficient, but the best natural gas to electricity power plants (combined cycle) are only about 60% efficient. Electricity also suffers a few more percentile loss in efficiency from distribution. So unless you get your electricity from solar/wind or nuclear (which has concerns for non-GHG reasons) you need to consume more natural gas to get the same heating effect in your home when you heat with electric. Heat pumps can change the equation, but require a lot of design considerations to take that into account. I can say more about that in a later post.
Natural gas also emits less particulate matter and heavy metals into the atmosphere than burning coal.
How green is electricity in New Hampshire?
The answer unfortunately is not very. Utility companies are required to provide periodic reports on their energy supply portfolio and report emissions of various things like carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). This reader gets her electricity from Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) so I pulled up their disclosure label. The energy sources for PSNH in 2011 relies heavily on coal. Here’s the entire mix:
- 45% Coal
- 21% Natural Gas
- 13% Nuclear
- 13% Hydro
- 3% Oil
- 2% Jet (I have no idea what this is)
- 1% muni-waste
- 1% wind
- 1% other
The emissions per MWh (1,000 kWh) is:
- 1,412 lbs CO2 / MWh
- 2 lbs NO2/MWh
- 11 lbs SO2/MWh
NH is worse than the regional mix. Be sure to check out how green or not green you electricity is and then read What Impact Does 1 Watt Have.
Should I get a different energy supplier?
With the deregulation of energy markets around the country, utility companies in deregulated states are required to allow the customers a choice in suppliers. You still pay the utility company for using the wires to get the electricity to you, but you can choose to by your electricity from an alternative supplier.
As for going with an alternative energy supplier, I would stay away from them as they usually have special introductory rates and then change to much higher rates and have hefty penalties for early termination of the agreement. Here’s the advice from a utility company that explains your right to choose and what to watch out for https://www.psnh.com/energysuppliers/.
How do I buy cleaner electricity?
Many utilities have programs that enable you to purchase renewable energy credits directly through your utility bill. For National Grid, the program is called New England GreenStart. We pay 2.4 cents/kWh extra for our electricity and they buy the renewable energy credits to cover all of our electricity consumption. This money goes to support the development of renewable energy in New England and is tax-deductible. We’ve been enrolled in this program for the past 8 years and have been very happy with it.
PSNH has the EarthSmart Green Rate program where you can pay a few cents extra on your electric bill to help fund renewable energy projects in New England.
What programs are available from your utility company? You can usually find links to information from your utility companies web site or in your electric bill.
What about fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as “fracking”, has led to a boom in the domestic natural gas market in the US. It is true that there are problems that need to be addressed with fracking and that it does produce a lot of the natural gas we consume in the country for heat and electricity. As for fracking itself, I am not outright opposed to the technology, but the very loosely regulated way it is being implemented today is dangerous. A lot of natural gas production also comes as a byproduct of the oil industry. As you process oil into gasoline, you get out natural gas. You also get it when you extract oil from wells. My favorite source is landfill gas or digesters, but that has a long way to go before it is a noticeable percentage of our natural gas consumption.
Did I miss any of your questions?
Feel free to ask any follow up questions in the comments.