Gas stoves ignite new concern; Fort Collins wants zero carbon by 2030

2023-02-15 18:29:55 By : Ms. Chris Fan

Foodies love them, most chefs use them and builders consider them upgrades.

Yet, cities tackling the global climate crisis are veering away from gas stoves, catching consumers in the middle of a longstanding debate over the health and environmental risks associated with burning natural gas. Kitchen Cabinet Range Hood

Gas stoves ignite new concern; Fort Collins wants zero carbon by 2030

A new study from Harvard and comments from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reignited the discussion over gas cooktops and ovens. The study contends the stoves release chemicals that pollute indoor air and contribute to greenhouse gases that play a major role in climate change.

Natural gas is methane. When burned, it produces small but detectable amounts of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants. Exposure indoors — when there isn’t enough ventilation — is associated with the risk of asthma, especially among children whose lungs are still forming.

Richard Trumpka Jr., head of the CPSC, called gas stoves "a hidden hazard" and suggested unsafe products might be banned in a statement he later walked back.

Trumpka's statements came at the same time roughly 100 cities or counties, and three states, were putting new building codes in place that either ban the installation of natural gas hookups in new homes and buildings or offer incentives for building all-electric structures. 

Fort Collins' Our Climate Future Plan, adopted by City Council in 2021, aims to have all new construction use carbon-free energy sources by 2030, according to Marcus Coldiron, the city's chief building official.

Currently, natural gas use in homes and businesses accounts for about 24% of the city's overall community emissions, according to the Fort Collins building department. And, about 25% of Xcel Energy's Colorado customers use natural gas for cooking, according to the company. Xcel is the Front Range's largest natural gas provider.

John Volckens, director of Colorado State University's Center for Energy Development and Health, said gas stoves are a safety hazard on several fronts. First, they produce open fire in the kitchen. "Anyone who's had a gas stove has at some time had an 'Oh, gosh' moment," he said. They also produce nitrogen dioxide that "we know without doubt are a slow acting-respiratory irritant. Also, there's air pollution and quite a bit of it."

The greatest danger comes if stoves are improperly vented, or if consumers don't use their vents. "Air pollution that you can't see or smell fills up your kitchen and your home," said Volckens, who equated using a gas stove without turning on the vent to driving a car without a seatbelt.

Rob Jackson, a professor of energy and the environment at Stanford University who has been studying the topic for several years, said 66% to 75% of Americans seldom, if ever, turn on their stove vents, and many homes and apartments lack adequate stove ventilation or have fans that recirculate the air through a filter, which doesn't remove the nitrogen dioxide.

Xcel Energy officials said in a statement: "We believe the use of natural gas for cooking is safe, but always recommend the use of ventilation, and encourage qualified installation and maintenance by a certified technician. We continue participating in the policy developments around this topic to ensure our customers have access to affordable, clean, safe and reliable energy sources.”

The city's climate directives mean a switch for local homebuilders who must now transition to supplying all-electric homes, said Jeff Schneider, owner of Armstead Construction and former member of the Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Commission.

Builders are making the change, but they and consumers are not necessarily happy about it.

Under new city codes adopted in March 2022, builders who install natural gas appliances including water heaters and furnaces until 2030 will also have to provide electrical connections, adding about $700 to the cost of construction, Schneider said.

The Northern Colorado Home Builders' Association polled seven local builders after being contacted by the Coloradoan for this story. Out of 1,700 homes they sold last year, 57% had gas installed, said Mike Welty, president of homebuilding for Hartford Homes.

Some high-end builders are currently installing 100% gas; Hartford Homes is closer to 75%, said Welty, who estimated it costs $2,000 to $2,500 per home to run gas rather than electric. "In most homes we include it," Welty said. "It adds to the price, but we know buyers want it. We know if we put in electric the buyer will ask us to change it if the house isn't completed yet."

Hartford Homes, which built much of the Mosaic neighborhood at the southeast corner of Timberline Road and Vine Drive, installed almost all gas appliances in the development. The multifamily homes in its Bloom subdivision just east of Mosaic will be all electric to comply with the city's future goals. Its single-family homes will have gas and electric for consumer choice, Welty said.

"We are working through the current dynamics of how long builders will be able to offer gas in Fort Collins," he said.

All of Hartford's homes are vented to the exterior, as required by the city of Fort Collins, he said.

In a statement, Kelly Schramm, executive officer of NoCo HBA, said it and its builders council "will be disappointed if gas stoves are eliminated from future new home construction starts in the city and Northern Colorado. In our opinion, and the data shows, that over 50% of new home construction buyers in Northern Colorado prefer gas ranges over electric and many buyers are willing to pay for it as an upgrade."

Retrofitting is even more expensive, said Schneider, who builds custom homes and retrofits existing homes. Running 50-amp service to a new appliance in a home he's retrofitting is costing between $1,800 and $2,000, he said. He'll leave the gas shut-off valve in place and cap it in case a future homeowner wants to revert to natural gas.

"Having the choice is the best option rather than mandating one or the other," Schneider said. "We all live our lives differently and use appliances differently."

Induction cooktops, which use electromagnetism to heat the cookware, are gaining in popularity because they heat food more evenly and provide a cooler cooktop.

Volckens said he switched to an induction stove two years ago and will never go back. It's faster than gas, gives the cook more control than gas and has a safer and big, flat surface, he said.

"I would never want to sacrifice the art of cooking ... I will never go back," he said. "It's way better than a gas stove."

Health implications aren't the only reason gas stoves are facing new scrutiny.

Jackson, the Stanford professor, found that the 40 million gas stoves in the U.S. annually produce pollution equivalent to the tailpipe emissions of 500,000 cars.

Even when the stove is turned off, the pilot light is leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas, Volckens said.

"Really we're just trying to talk about the planet’s health and our own health in the long run," he said. "Changing all gas stoves in Fort Collins will have some impact on climate, but not a major one."

While getting energy from renewable sources and converting to electric vehicles would have a greater impact, "it doesn't mean (eliminating) gas stoves would be insignificant," he said.

Fighting climate change is not a battle we're winning, "but we need to make steady improvements," Volckens said.

The health side of the equation is just as important, he added. Gas stoves spew nitrogen dioxide into our homes that’s causing slow, steady damage to our lungs, he said. "No one should put up with that."

The Rocky Mountain Institute, which recently released its own report, provided a series of recommendations tailored to regulators, researchers and the public, including:

Gas stoves ignite new concern; Fort Collins wants zero carbon by 2030

Commercial Pizza Oven Venting USA Today contributed to this report.