With the holiday season underway in the US, how Americans heat their homes this winter – and how much that will cost them – is the latest focus of the gas v electricity climate culture war.
Earlier this year, Republicans and the fossil fuel industry were furious at suggestions from US regulators that gas stoves could be phased out over concerns about dangerous indoor air pollution, prompting Joe Biden to rule out such a ban.
The claim, based on new federal data, may spark concern among those considering ditching their fossil fuel-based heating systems. But it’s highly misleading because it fails to address the efficiency of new technologies and the widespread uses of electricity in US homes, according to the pro-electrification group Rewiring America.
Each year, the federal Energy Information Agency publishes a winter fuels outlook, forecasting how much households using different fuels will pay for heat from November through March. This year, it says heating-oil customers will face the steepest costs, at $1,856; followed by propane users, at $1,337; electricity users, at $1,063; and finally gas users, at just $605.
But that number doesn’t distinguish between older electric-resistance appliances, such as electric baseboard heaters and electric space heaters – which are much more expensive to run – and highly efficient electric heat pumps.
“Both run on electricity, but they’re fundamentally different machines,” said Wael Kanj, a research associate at Rewiring America. “It’s like averaging the top speed of a Power Wheels [toy car] and a Tesla.”
Electric heat pumps, which are installed outside buildings and can both heat and cool homes, push warm air out of the home in the summer and draw it inside during the winter. Because they transfer heat rather than generate it, heat pumps warm homes very efficiently, using half as much energy as electric resistance heaters, according to the Department of Energy, and two to three times less energy than oil- and gas-powered heaters, according to recent research.
That means heat pumps, championed as the best option for the planet, will probably cost much less to operate than the $1,063 that the Energy Information Agency estimated for electric heating in its winter outlook report.
Another issue, Rewiring America says, is that the agency includes all uses of each fuel in its cost estimates, meaning cost projections for electricity customers include energy used to power other electric appliances such as refrigerators and electronics.
Other uses of the same fuel are also included in the agency’s gas, oil and propane customers’ projections – gas projections, for instance, also include fuel usage for stoves. But electricity has the widest range of uses in US homes, said Kanj.
The federal report acknowledges the difference in fuel costs for heat pumps and electric resistance heaters.
“Total expenditures will vary from our forecasts in this outlook depending on the efficiency of the equipment, along with housing characteristics and geography,” it says. “For example, heat pumps are more efficient than electric resistance heating.”
It also said that its expenditure projections represent all uses for each heating fuel. “It’s not uncommon for users to miss this distinction in our forecast, so we re-emphasized this point on social media last week to address confusion,” Chris Higginbotham, the press officer for the agency, said in an email.
He added that the report also includes a graphic to underscore the issue.
“We take every step possible to help our data consumers understand the full message of our reports,” he said, inviting readers to contact the agency with questions.
Still, the report’s top-line figures don’t reflect these subtleties, and neither do many articles about the report. That’s a problem, Kanj said.
Addressing these issues would yield a very different picture. Using data from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which guides state administrators of federal energy aid programs, the group did just that.
It found that heat pump users can expect to pay just $639 for electricity from October to March – more than 60% less than homes with electric resistance heaters.
The Biden administration has championed heat pumps as part of its push to decarbonize US homes. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included millions of dollars to accelerate heat pump production. Last week, Biden invoked a cold war-era law to pour taxpayer funds into the domestic manufacturing of the appliances.
Despite these efforts, the Energy Information Agency has repeatedly underestimated the potential savings heat pumps can bring to American homes, Kanj said. “We really need to make sure the agency is caught up with the times,” he said.
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