Rock doc: A tale of two stoves

By May 31, 2014

My elderly aunt recently came into some money. She decided — very generously — to send part of it to each of her nieces and nephews. This gave me the task of choosing how I wanted to spend an unexpected $1,000. I decided to buy a new range for my kitchen. I wouldn’t otherwise buy a new appliance, and by spending the money on a range I will be able to remember my aunt and bless her name each night as I cook supper.
My old range was electric. The oven was slow and the burners were constantly problematic. I replaced all the burners but still had to suffer with unpredictable and inconsistent heating. I grew up with a natural gas cook stove, so decided to buy one for my house. I like gas because you can see when it’s on, because it cuts off instantly, and because I think of natural gas as a pretty clean fuel we can get from domestic sources.
No sooner had I made up my mind about what to do with the unexpected money than my brother Nils explained he plans to change from a gas range to an electric one. (Leave it to siblings to always disagree?)
Nils is truly concerned about our production of greenhouse gases. He wants to eliminate his household’s carbon pollution and he’s willing to do some real work to meet that goal.
One step for my brother is to switch his appliances from natural gas to electricity. His idea is that if he uses natural gas to cook supper, he’s making carbon dioxide that adds to what’s building up in the atmosphere. If he uses electricity to do those same tasks, he can — at least in principle — avoid the production of greenhouse gases.
I like to say to my brother that not all his power can come from carbon-neutral sources like windmills or solar panels. After all, he uses electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. In short, we all need what the utility people call “base load power.” Across the country, that kind of power comes from several different things, but part of it is from natural gas power plants. From my perspective, we all of us are “sinners” when it comes to greenhouse gas production, including people who only own electric appliances.
Nils counters that our need for base load power is not a rationale to continue business as usual, it’s just another challenge to be met by conservation or energy storage. In the meanwhile, he is working hard to construct a building that will be the size of a small house and used as a commercial kitchen. The building is super-insulated and has a solar air heater, a solar water preheater and LED lighting. The heat is electric,  but because of the clever designs, very few kilowatt-hours are needed to keep the place warm.
While we disagree about some things, I really applaud my brother’s building efforts. Not many of us put our money where we say our values are.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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E. Kirsten Peters

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