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A tale of two stoves

Posted by | May 30, 2014

My elderly aunt in Canada 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 rather wonderful task of deciding how I wanted to spend $1,000 that I had not anticipated receiving. After a bit I decided on 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 a bit slow, but otherwise baked things OK. The burners, however, were constantly problematic. I had replaced them all but still had to suffer with unpredictable and inconsistent heating.

I grew up with a natural gas cook stove and so decided to buy something similar for my house. I like gas because you can see when it’s on, because it cuts off instantly when you turn off the flame, 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 thinks a lot about climate change and his family’s use of energy. Some of his ideas are at odds with mine, but I’m (mostly) OK with that.

My brother is truly concerned about humankind’s production of greenhouse gases and the climate change we may bring about during the remainder of this century. He wants to eliminate his own household’s greenhouse gas pollution and he’s willing to do some real work to meet that goal. While I’m more concerned about other political issues, I respect Nils’ earnestness and his willingness to think and spend differently because of climate change concerns. He sees the matter as a moral one, and he’s committed to doing what he can to help bring about changes in both his household and his community.

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 do things like cook supper, he’s making carbon dioxide that adds to what’s building up in the global atmosphere. If he uses electricity to do those same tasks, he can — at least in principle — not create greenhouse gases. While he waits to purchase solar panels, for pays the power company extra each month to purchase electricity from wind.

I like to say to my brother that not all his power can come from windmills or solar panels. After all, he uses electricity on calm winter nights 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. So, 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 constructing a new building on his property. It’s the size of a small house and will be used as a commercial kitchen. The building is super-insulated, and it has a solar air heater and a solar water preheater. Nils is putting in LED lighting (more efficient than compact fluorescents). The heat is electric, but because of the clever designs my brother is using, very few kilowatt-hours are needed to keep the place warm. Nils plans to use what he’s learning as he builds the kitchen to retrofit two other buildings on his property to reduce their carbon footprints.

I’ve got to respect parts of my brother’s thinking. And I really applaud his 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.