Tim Forcey: The all-electric home

Why it’s important to transition to an all-electric home – and the key steps to take

This speech was delivered by Tim Forcey at the launch of the  CERES Eco-house on 9 October 2018. Tim has 35 years of industrial experience (electricity, oil and gas, petrochemicals) with focus on energy production, transmission and consumption.

Thanks to Minister D’Ambrosio for Victoria’s leadership, as demonstrated by a long list of exciting things going on in our state.

Thanks to the people at the Moreland Energy Foundation whom I’ve worked with over the years – on projects such as the roll out of the Victorian Residential Efficiency Scorecard.

And lastly thanks to everyone involved with making the CERES Environment Park and the EcoHouse the wonderful, instructing and thriving community icon that it is today.

Why me?

Now – I had to wonder – when I was invited to speak this evening – why me?

It’s not because of my 35 years of industrial experience.

Nor is it because of my volunteer climate action over the last 12 years working with many conservationist NGOs.

I might be speaking to you tonight because of the important research we published into the economic alternatives to gas out of the University of Melbourne with assistance from the Alternative Technology Association.

But here’s the truth. The reason I’ve been asked to speak here is because of this darned Facebook Group!

‘My Efficient Electric Home’ Facebook group

If you’re not already a member of the public Facebook group My Efficient Electric Home, I encourage you to get your phone right now, have a look, and join straight away!

My Efficient Electric Home, now with 4,500 members, has grown in three years to become a leading searchable database and source of advice for people making their homes more healthy, comfortable, affordable, less damaging to our global climate and environment, and a whole lot less dependent on gas.

Because it’s on Facebook, we have Members and experts from Iceland to Argentina. But it happens that around 90% of our members are Australian, and about half of those are Victorian. So a big theme you see at our group is exactly what you see in this EcoHouse: Victorians moving their homes off gas.

Every day, indeed nearly every hour – members are helping members choose the best insulation – the best heating systems, to double-glaze or not, and if so with what. And we have amassed hundreds, possibly thousands, of case studies of people moving their homes off gas.

Get off gas

It’s funny. I worked for decades in the gas industry and now I spend my time going around telling people the last place anyone would want to use gas is in a home!

My plumber wants to know what’s going on. He’s reporting a rush of people wanting to have their gas meters removed from their property. Turned off, disconnected, packed up, and taken away.

People are leaving the gas grid because they’re finding, as we did in our old renovated weatherboard, the cost of heating your home with these modern reverse cycle air conditioners can be as little as one-third of what it costs to heat with ducted gas.  One third.  These amazing home economics are not far off comparing the old incandescent light bulb with an LED!

At the University of Melbourne we found a large Melbourne home can save $658 a year by heating with their air conditioners instead of using gas. Across Victoria, we found people who already have reverse-cycle air conditioners but have never used them for heating could save a quarter of a billion dollars per year if only they find the heat button on their air con and move off gas.

This is the biggest consumer win that I’ve heard of. It’s even easier than changing a light bulb.  All you have to do is push a button. But how many people know?

Years ago many of us worked hard to demonise the use of air conditioners – in summer.

But now we must turn that on its head, because heating with your air con in winter is the way to save.

Even the gas industry won’t argue with you about these home-heating economics. They know the only thing keeping them in this business is the lack of knowledge in the community.

The gas industry is happy to keep selling gas heaters to people, condemning them to years of high heating costs. And the Victorian building industry is happy to keep selling homes equipped with ducted gas heating and evaporative cooling: the worst combination you can have when considering health, comfort, economics, our climate and our environment.

The wonder of the air conditioner

Because you see there are other benefits to heating with your air conditioner beyond just saving money.

Heating with your air con won’t kill you with poisonous carbon monoxide gas as happens too often with gas heaters.

Rather, air conditioners offer sophisticated air filtering, which is good for asthmatics and all of us that breathe air.

Turning on your air con can be the cheapest way to heat your home for months and months over winter.  And come January if you want to be cooler in your loungeroom when watching the tennis, you can use your air con to cool your room. Importantly as our planet warms, and heat waves become more severe – someday – an air conditioner might just save your life, or the life of an elderly family member.

The modern reverse-cycle air conditioner is a truly amazing multi-purpose device!

When you lay out all these advantages for Victorians, they get it.

What’s harder for people to understand are the technicalities of why an air con can be the cheapest and greenest way to heat a home. It’s an air-source heat pump. It uses a refrigerant cycle to capture the free renewable heat that the sun has put in the air outside your home. The thing about free heat is that it is free! That’s why it can cost as little as 1/3rd to heat with your air conditioner – instead of burning gas.

Expensive gas

And of course we have the gas industry to thank – for the situation where now Australia produces more gas than ever, often using highly invasive techniques like coal seam dewatering and hydraulic fracturing, that leak large volumes of the greenhouse gas methane into our Earth’s atmosphere.

But now, around 80% of Australia’s gas is exported!  Gas exports have caused the wholesale price of gas to double to double again, and now, it’s going up some more!

So getting off gas, or better yet, not getting on to it in the first place, is a no-brainer for many Victorians.  It’s better to heat your living spaces and water with modern air-source heat pumps, just like we are doing here at this EcoHouse.

Staying off gas should also be a no-brainer for housing estate developers. Why spend money to lay pipes and supply something that people don’t need, and fewer and fewer people want? Why should people who don’t want gas have to subsidise a few who might?

Today we have a couple of examples, in Torquay and in Canberra, where new housing estates have no connection to the gas grid.

In headlines, developers and planners are talking about the zero-carbon home and the house with no bills. Well, the house with no bills certainly doesn’t have a gas bill!

Gas for manufacturing / gas demand declining

Now, at this point in my talk is usually when someone will ask: “What about gas for Victorian manufacturing? Manufacturing needs gas!”

Does it?

Victorian manufacturing sure doesn’t need expensive gas, and thanks to gas exports, expensive gas is all that Victorian manufacturers are going to get.

So like homeowners, manufacturers also must consider their no-gas options.

Fortunately they have options. Whether it’s a dairy or a steel mill a report by Beyond Zero Emissions entitled “Electrifying Industry” describes how manufacturers can move away from gas using technologies ranging from heat pumps to microwaves to renewable hydrogen, not only to reduce their energy bill but also in many cases to streamline industrial processes, reduce other operating costs, and improve output and product quality.

In a way, it’s like the digitalisation of industry that must happen as we move away from the old 20th Century way of operating where we just went around burning stuff.

I recently published an article that reported the amount of gas used in eastern Australia peaked in 2012. Six years ago. You won’t hear of this from the gas industry. They want you to believe their product is an essential service a product that is in ever-increasing demand.

But that’s not true.  Every year, less and less gas is being used in homes, in manufacturing, and for generating electricity.

Good news! However, we’re not moving off gas and other fossil fuels fast enough.

Climate emergency

Because, let’s think about the even bigger picture. We have been and are in a Climate Emergency. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change yesterday released a report where it’s clear our current path leads to climate disaster. We must speed up our efforts to decarbonise.

But the problem is, not only are we not decarbonising fast enough, governments around the world, including the Victorian government, continue to spend taxpayer money helping the fossil fuel industry find, produce, and sell more fossil fuels.

To an engineer like me, or to a climate scientist, this is madness: supporting de-carbonisation on one hand while pursuing more carbon on the other. Any child would tell you, it makes no sense.

But many politicians see this as a satisfactory compromise. Such compromised decisions are not going to make things easy for our children. Politicians need to stop thinking it is their job to deliver less than what climate scientists know we need.

Throwing away money

Case in point, the Victorian Government Gas Program will spend $42.5 M in just a single year helping the oil and gas industry find more oil and gas.

Now I could ask people in this room tonight: What could you do with $42.5 M?

The Victorian Greens, in their recently-announced policy to move Victoria completely beyond gas would spend 3 million dollars of that letting people know the cheapest and greenest way to heat a home can be with a reverse-cycle air conditioner. This is what any Australian government should do if they are serious about truly helping people to reduce their energy bills.

This Greens policy sounds good to me, because if we are to leave this public awareness campaign to a few NGOs one EcoHouse and a Facebook Group, we’re NOT going to de-carbonise at the speed we need.

So let’s think again, what could we do with that $42.5 M?

The engineer in me does the numbers and finds that sum of money could supply reverse-cycle air conditioners to 15,000 homes.

But that’s unreasonable isn’t it. No government would ever do that. Hand out air conditioners to all these Victorians.

But why is the same sum of money so easily handed over to sustain the damaging fossil fuel industry well beyond its use-by date?

350 Victorian homes per day

Let me conclude with this from the Netherlands. The Netherlands, which sits on top of one of the largest gas fields in the world, is committed to be gas free by 2050. To do that, they are training up an army of technicians to replace gas appliances with heat pumps. Why? Because they’ve worked out, starting tomorrow, they must transform 1,100 homes every day from now to 2050.

What would that look like for Victoria?  Not quite as challenging. Starting tomorrow, we must de-gas around 350 Victorian homes every day from now until 2050.

So right now, given the Climate Emergency, we need a plan to degas all those Victorian homes. Where is that plan?

And it goes without saying, but we have to keep saying it: If you’re in a hole stop digging.

So starting tomorrow, no more bad fossil fuel investments. No more new gas appliances sold. No more new homes being fitted with gas. No new suburbs connected to gas. No new gas infrastructure.

Instead, let’s help our friends and neighbours that are on gas, to get off gas, and save money.

Thank you!

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