How much does it cost to go electric? | Opinion

Cory Gaines

I recently read an article about a gentleman from Golden who electrified his house, replacing all his natural gas (NG) appliances with electric.

Though I have no issue with energy efficiency, renewables, or electrification per se — I put solar panels on my roof and installed the highest efficiency AC I could — as I read, I wondered how much electrification would cost for my 950-square foot palace on the plains. The best I could get out of the article above was that it was “not cheap.”

With regards to things like this, I always think of a quote from Lord Kelvin that I share with my physics students: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.” I was reminded of it because when we talk about things like this (both as people and as a state) we should ground our discussion in numbers. Numbers cut through the mental shortcuts we all are apt to use, both the platitudes about technology allowing us, with no loss to our standard of living, to cut greenhouse gases, and the yelling about how environmental concerns will leave us penniless and uncomfortable.

A quick note before I start: estimates of the cost to electrify get complicated quickly and vary widely. What you’ll see here is a common physics tool, the “back of the envelope” calculation. To help you understand what that means, picture a bulls-eye target, the one with the big dot in the center and rings around it. My estimates will be underestimates and will lie in the same circle as the center, but they won’t be exact. In the spirit of transparency (and so you could estimate for yourself should you want), I go into more detail on my Facebook page.

To electrify, I will have to replace a water heater and a boiler. A quick look online shows replacing them (an electric water heater and heat pump, the darling of the electrification crowd) would run about $6,200. That’s with me doing the labor and if everything goes right. Hiring for the work done would easily double this amount. Putting this number in perspective, $6,200 is about six mortgage payments, eight months woth of groceries, or a used-car equivalent to my current (also tiny) grocery-getter.

Now, nature doesn’t really care whether I input electrical energy or combustion for heating, so, absent a change in the flow of heat out of my house, I can probably figure my yearly energy consumption will stay constant. Currently I use 611 Therms of NG per year. Knowing that, it’s tempting to just go to Google and convert the units for NG consumption (Therms) to the units for electrical consumption (kilowatt-hours or kWh) and be done. It is an easy conversion, except that doing so ignores a fundamental difference in heating with combustion vs. electricity.

Feel the flue (carefully!) next time you’re by your furnace or water heater. That heat you feel in the metal? That’s waste heat — you paid for it but get no use out of it. Second, heat pumps capitalize on the energy in the air around your house to boost their heat output. A decent heat pump, operating under optimal conditions, might put 3 units of energy into your home for every 1 unit it consumes. Then again, things are complicated further by the fact that, below a certain temperature (yes, unlike Southern California, we have winters here), heat pumps must use supplemental electrical power to continue to heat your home.

Due to space constraints, I am going to skip a huge amount of detail here and go straight to the punchline” I have, after looking up efficiencies and relative power outputs required for boiler and water heater, come up with an effective efficiency for combustion vs electric. I estimate that electrical appliances are about 1.5 times more efficient than NG appliances — ie, your NG appliances will consume half as much energy as an electrical set up. year would be about 12,000 kWh of electrical energy. more per year.

Not cheap indeed. Year 1 of electrification is $7,000. Every year thereafter will cost $740. Got a bigger house, unwilling/unable to do the sweat equity? Your cost would be even bigger.

You are welcome to come to your own conclusions on whether or not this would be worth it for you. For my family, this would be a giant commitment of time and money. If you scale up the numbers you can see it would be the same for our state — and I haven’t even touched on the generation side of the equation.

You’ll pardon me but this strikes me as beyond sensible; We all live in the “now” and, though it’s good to look ahead, or to have the resources to move with every new direction that we think the future will go in, I have to live today. For me and for my family, I want small steps that don’t bear ongoing increases in my cost of living — not grand statements.

Cory Gaines is a physics instructor at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook and lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”


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