A- A A+

Getting off gas not so easy for renters

4 Comments
Greg Foyster |  25 May 2017

 

Cold? Worried about high winter energy bills? Concerned about climate change? Quick, turn on your air conditioner.

Gas burnerThat's the argument Tim Forcey, an energy advisor with University of Melbourne Energy Institute, makes in a report published a few years ago titled Switching Off Gas.

Forcey writes that people living in up to one million homes across eastern Australia can save hundreds of dollars each winter with one easy action. 'They need to turn on their existing reverse-cycle air conditioner heat pumps and turn off their gas.' It's that simple.

How does it work? While many Australians still think of air conditioners as machines for cooling, in other countries they're used for heating, and they're called 'heat pumps'.

Standard electric heaters turn roughly one unit of electricity into one unit of heat. So they're about 100 per cent efficient. A reverse cycle air conditioner, however, uses electricity to 'pump' heat from one place to another. And it's incredibly efficient at doing so — the ratio can be one unit of electricity to four or five units of heat. So they can be 400, 500 or even 600 per cent efficient.

Hot water heat pumps work in the same way. When a household has both, the savings — environmental and economic — can be substantial. In 2014, the Grattan Institute found a typical home in Melbourne could save over $1000 a year by switching from gas to efficient electric appliances for heating, hot water and cooking. In Sydney it was over $600, and in Adelaide over $500.

The same year, the Alternative Technology Association analysed the cost of gas versus efficient electric appliances for six different housing types across the east-coast grid — that's South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, ACT and Queensland.

Energy analyst Kate Leslie, who worked on the report, says switching from gas to efficient electric appliances was more economic everywhere they looked. 'And that was mainly due to the efficiency of reverse cycle air conditioners.'

 

"What about renters? Or vulnerable groups in slum suburbs? Or pensioners? Students? They either can't afford the upfront costs or don't have permission to make large alterations to their houses. The clean tech transition is wonderful, but it's leaving many such people behind."

 

But what if there's an electricity price rise? Another ATA energy analyst, Keiran Price, is working on an updated report comparing the costs of gas vs electric appliances and solar power. He says a price rise is likely but still probably wouldn't outweigh the efficiency gains of heat pump technology. 'From an economic point of view, even if electricity is more expensive per unit, it's still worth switching.' Plus, if a household has solar, then you can run a heat pump hot water system when the sun is shining, tapping into cheap and clean electricity. This should make getting off gas even more cost-effective.

Gas used to be pitched as a 'cleaner' fuel, but that's no longer the case — and, once again, reverse air con plays a role. A second ATA report, published in January 2015, found switching from gas to efficient electric appliances produced less greenhouse gas emissions in most cases and for most households across Australia. Even in Victoria, where power stations burn a dirtier type of coal than in New South Wales or Queensland, it reduced emissions by 26 per cent.

The big reason? You guessed it: heat pump technology. Using electricity from the grid creates more pollution than burning gas in your home, but the electric reverse cycle air conditioner is so efficient it's still less damaging overall. That's great news for households with air con, but galling for anyone who can't afford one, or isn't allowed to install it. Which includes me. I'm a renter.

I recently switched off gas, aiming to reap the financial savings and reduce my climate pollution. Telling Origin Energy to get stuffed was enough to keep me feeling warm and fuzzy for a few weeks, but even that fond memory can't maintain a toasty inner glow all winter. I need a proper heater. So I did some research, and learned that heat pumps are a technological marvel, but that other forms of electric heating are comparatively crap — doing the calculations, it looks like my emissions will go up by switching from gas to an electric fan heater.

I also learned that portable air conditioners, the kind that don't need a landlord's permission for installation, are pretty terrible, and don't even have energy star ratings or minimum efficiency standards. The only ones that do — dual-duct models — generally aren't sold in Australia. On Whirlpool forums, renters describe jerry-rigging their own versions in desperation. It's another example of how clean, green and efficient technologies still aren't accessible to everyone. This is a massive injustice in the making.

As climate change escalates, and our energy system buckles under the strain of more extreme storms and rapidly changing technology, property owners can turn to solar power, batteries and super-efficient air con to keep their homes cosy and their bills manageable. But what about renters? Or vulnerable groups in slum suburbs? Or pensioners? Students? They either can't afford the upfront costs or don't have permission to make large alterations to their houses. The clean tech transition is wonderful, but it's leaving many such people behind.

This winter, if you have a reverse cycle air conditioner, use it for heating. Get off gas — it's now a waste of money — and install solar. Take advantage of the fact you can lock in lower bills and reduce your emissions for years to come. I wish I could confidently make the same recommendation for renters, but once again, they're left out in the cold.

 


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

If you're interested in learning more from others who've made the switch, join the My Efficient Electric Home Facebook page.

 



Comments

Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

though I've been told by some with reverse aircon that my 30 year old gas heater, with electic fan, is superior heating and cheaper when used sensibly. Seems to be so when I look at the bills but ask me again at end of this winter. As a pensioner who's been looking into solar for 30+ years and would need a loan to get it installed I am yet to be convinced it'd be worth it. But I'm very open to being convinced otherwise.

Jaq Spratt 28 May 2017

"Telling Origin Energy to get stuffed was enough to keep me feeling warm and fuzzy for a few weeks, but even that fond memory can't maintain a toasty inner glow all winter." Wonderful start to the week - thanks Greg! (And for the serious and sage discussion too, of course)

Richard 29 May 2017

Very interesting and informative article. Thanks so much.

Mary 05 June 2017

Thank you, Greg, from an age pensioner who rents - but has been able to instal a reverse cycle airconditioner. Until today, I haven't used it for heating, but your article has been a real eureka moment. I have it! And I truly appreciate your point about the inequality in the system. The benefits hit the well-off first and the poor last. As usual.

Joan Seymour 07 June 2017

Similar articles

Climate change is the elephant in the budget room

7 Comments
Francine Crimmins | 11 May 2017

Bleached Great Barrier Reef coralWhen Scott Morrison announced the 2017-18 Budget this week there was one phrase he didn't dare to utter in his meticulously written and rehearsed speech. It's just two short words, climate change, but when used together they conjure a public debate even our minister for the environment gets tongued tied over. Morrison's omission of climate change in the federal budget has set a tone of ignorance to improving energy policy in a meaningful way.


Why we will never give up flying

14 Comments
Greg Foyster | 27 April 2017

Aeroplane flies out of a coal power station chimney. Cartoon by Greg FoysterI haven't flown for six years. I didn't feel a pressing need to travel, but most of all I didn't want to make such an enormous contribution to climate change. A return flight from Melbourne to London pumps about 1.8 tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, wiping out other efforts to reduce emissions at home. But now here I am on a Jetstar flight to Sydney for a climate change conference. As the plane takes off, I squirm with a sense of hypocrisy: I've broken my vow for the same reason I made it.


Racism and renewables in the developing world

1 Comment
Ketan Joshi | 06 April 2017

Detail from Bill Leak cartoon shows Indian man spreading mango chutney on shards of a solar panelA 2015 cartoon by Bill Leak depicts an Indian family squatting, smashing solar panels to pieces. A woman chews on a shattered piece of glass, and a man attempts to smear mango chutney onto glistening shards. The initial reaction centred around the racist depictions of Indians. But it also represents a broader and worrisome attitude towards global energy politics, that assumes idiocy in developing countries, combined with a push to burden them with the dangerous wares of a dying industry.


People power the solar revolution

14 Comments
Francine Crimmins | 27 March 2017

Tesla PowerwallEarlier this month Tesla launched the Powerwall 2. In the transition to renewable energy, it may be the biggest disruption to hit traditional energy companies yet. In fact, it's probably their worst nightmare. Our role in energy under this innovation has changed from us being consumers to possibly all being providers. Just as Uber disrupted taxis and Airbnb disrupted traditional hotel chains, so too will the Tesla battery change our relationships and transactions with energy.


Climate pipe dreams

5 Comments
Greg Foyster | 31 March 2017

Injection well at the Otway ProjectAbout 40km from Warrnambool in south-western Victoria is Australia's first demonstration site for storing carbon dioxide pollution deep underground. In photos, it doesn't look like much - a few water tanks, sheds and pipes in a brown paddock - and yet plans to meet the internationally agreed climate change target are betting on the success of projects like this. This isn't a fringe strategy anymore. It is a big part of the mainstream, politically preferred approach to address global warming.