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Cooks like me have a deep attachment to gas stoves. But it's time to put out the fire

PICTURE A CHUNKY gas-fired stovetop. Twist a knob, and whoosh--a potent ring of fire licks at a metal grate. With a typical induction range, you push some buttons, and the reaction is silent and invisible. As a home cook who toiled on the fiery line of a Texas steakhouse through college, I see a gas range and something stirs in me, making me want to subject raw ingredients to the transformations of fire. Induction stovetops? They leave me cold.

Plenty of chefs share my view. "Flames are at the heart of what makes cooking visceral and fun," says Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "For me, cooking is about the basic elements: fire, water, air," says Bruce Sherman, chef-owner of the Chicago farm-to-table temple North Pond. "If you extract one of those, what's left?"

But according to a strand of environmental thinking that's gaining force, gas cooking may be as much of a mindless indulgence as a Hummer. Berkeley, California, recently became the nation's first city to ban natural gas hookups for many new buildings, meaning their cooks will have to rely on electricity instead. Berkeley may be on the vanguard, but it's not alone: In April, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti released a plan to convert all of the city's new buildings to carbon-neutral technology by 2050, requiring all home and commercial cooking appliances to go electric. About 60 other California cities are considering similar tweaks to their building codes. In July, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law an ambitious climate plan that could phase out gas hookups in the state by 2050.

As it stands, most buildings in the United States are connected to two energy sources: a natural gas line that provides the fuel burned in furnaces, dryers, water heaters, and gas ranges, or about 43 percent of a home's energy demands; and an electrical grid that powers lights, air conditioning, and most appliances. Natural gas has become dramatically cheaper and more plentiful since the fracking boom that began about a decade ago. As a result, gas increasingly feeds not just our homes, but also our grids: It has muscled out coal as the top fuel for electricity generation in the United States. And because natural gas combustion produces fewer particulate pollutants than coal, it has been heralded as a "bridge fuel" to a greener future.

But when it comes to climate change, natural gas's green reputation is a "fraud," says Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. Coal combustion produces sulfur and nitrogen oxide, which temporarily mask the heat-trapping effect of its carbon emissions. Taking that into account, natural gas has at least double the climate-warming effect of coal within the first two decades of combustion. That's dire, given that the best research shows we need to slash greenhouse gases within the next n years to avert the worst effects of global warming.

If we're going to get really serious about reducing emissions, we'll need to get rid of combustion for supplying energy at home, Jacobson says. That means cutting those gas lines and switching every appliance that relies on them to the electric grid. This might seem counterintuitive because electrical power generation remains dominated by natural gas and other fossil fuels. But carbon-free sources are gaining ground. In 2009, fossil fuels accounted for almost 70 percent of the power grid. By 2019, they had dropped to 63.5 percent, in part because wind's and solar's shares jumped nearly 4-fold and 75-fold, respectively. Because of recent technological advances and economies of scale, the prices of wind and solar are dropping so rapidly that they're already competitive with gas, and they will continue to get cheaper.

As the grid goes green and its carbon emissions drop, the same is true for every device plugged into it. Few people will push back against fully electrifying their homes or restaurants because they cling to their gas furnaces. It's the stovetop that generates deep attachments--especially for cooking enthusiasts like me.

Induction ranges, which use a magnetic field to heat up the pan, have been available for decades. They are more efficient than their gas rivals, requiring not even half the energy to boil an equivalent amount of water, and they won't release the nasty airborne compounds that come from gas ranges. But induction stoves have been slow to take off in the United States, maybe because they tend to be more expensive--about twice the cost of those sold in the United Kingdom, where the technology is easier to find in stores.

If induction technology does catch on, it will be only the most recent energy revolution to completely transform cookery. In the early 20th century, wood and coal still powered indoor kitchens. They were blindingly hot, smoky places, where cooks (mostly women) had to manage the fires and haul out ashes. Gas distribution became common in US cities after World War II, and gas stoves began to replace those fueled by wood and coal. I suspect we can survive another cooking fuel transition. Even gas-range enthusiasts like me have already gone electric for many tasks without thinking much about it. Five years ago, I stopped boiling water for coffee in a stovetop kettle and switched to a much faster electric one. On a hot summer day, I don't long for the controlled blue flame of my stove when I'm spending a fraction of the time cooking beans in an electric pressure cooker. And in the end, my range top delivers a sad imitation of the fire that emerges when I occasionally ignite charcoal in an outdoor grill. Maybe that's where I should go to satisfy my primal yearning to unleash flames on food.

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Title Annotation:ECONUNDRUMS; eco-friendly stoves
Author:Philpott, Tom
Publication:Mother Jones
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2019
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