Helen Oakey, Executive Director
Many Canberrans will be familiar with the ACT Government’s target of zero emissions by 2045, a policy that the ALP, Liberals and Greens all signed up to. All three parties also support keeping the ACT at 100% renewable electricity, now that we have achieved this target by leveraging our electricity purchasing power. But despite this clear agenda to decarbonise in the ACT, new homes and developments are still being connected to the gas network.
Some Canberra residents may be surprised to discover that a favorite heating and cooking fuel is now on the fossil fuel hit list. If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and were told that “natural gas” is “cleaner, greener and more cost-effective” than coal-fired electricity, you may wonder why it is now on the nose.
There are three reasons: (a) gas is a fossil fuel, and burning it releases carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, (b) the extraction and transport of gas releases substantial methane emissions, and (c) methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Gas makes up 22% of the ACT’s greenhouse emissions. We can’t say the ACT is running on 100% clean energy while we continue to use gas to heat our homes and water and cook our food.
But I have two pieces of good news. First, by switching from gas to electricity in our homes we can shift to a fuel source that is clean and renewable. Second, if we make a calm and planned transition to electric appliances, with support from the government for low-income families, households will see their energy bills drop. Modern, efficient electric appliances consume less energy than gas appliances. And by leaving the gas network, ACT households will save $320 per year on their network supply charge.
The ACT Government has already set a target of 2045 to phase out gas, the first Australian jurisdiction to do so. It’s a significant commitment, as ‘cold-climate” ACT is the second-highest user of gas on a per capita basis.
As shown by its recent submission to the Australian Energy Regulator (AER), Evoenergy (the owner and operator of the ACT’s gas network) has already lost its appetite to expand the network into new suburbs. Network expansion is no longer a good investment due to the numbers of residents who will never use the gas network, especially given the incentives to install electric appliances and to make our houses more energy efficient.
Unfortunately Evoenergy’s 5 year plan outlines an intention to spend $36m of gas consumers’ money to bring new customers onto the gas network in existing suburbs. This plan to lure new customers onto the gas network is a questionable strategy, because Evoenergy knows that all political parties in the ACT have committed to a net zero emissions target and knows that we cannot meet that target without cutting the 22% of emissions caused by gas.
Luring new customers onto the gas network also risks leaving households stranded with appliances and infrastructure that they cannot use in the near future. It is especially problematic for residents of multi-unit developments who face a complex and potentially costly transition to electricity.
If Evoenergy won’t change course, the ACT Government should mandate that new residences – including knock-down rebuilds and multi-units – cannot connect to the gas grid. That mandate is needed in the next few months to prevent the AER signing off on Evoenergy’s current plan for the next 5 years. That is why the Conservation Council is asking political parties to commit to this in the lead up to the ACT Election.
Canberra has more than 120,000 households that use gas. Transitioning them to all-electric homes is a considerable challenge that requires forethought and a clear timeline, something we wholeheartedly support. But preventing new buildings from connecting to the grid in the short term is common sense and would deliver an easily achievable cut to emissions in the next two years.
Right now the debate on gas in the ACT seems a little confused. ACT Labor proposes incentives to support households to transition to electric appliances but appears to want the transition to be purely market driven. The ACT Greens also propose incentives and support to households, but have also committed to ensuring that within two years, there are no new buildings being connected to the gas network. The Canberra Liberals are still calling for gas to be rolled out to new suburbs for the “benefit of businesses”, and described the transition away from gas as “risky and dangerous”.
With all three parties committing to net zero emissions by 2045, and with gas featuring heavily in our emissions profile, surely all parties can at least agree that the sensible decision is not to let more households connect to gas when we know it’s on the way out? And in the longer term, surely all parties should be promoting the energy savings (and emissions savings) open to Canberrans by switching from gas to all-electric homes?
Helen Oakey is the Executive Director of the Conservation Council ACT Region.
The Conservation Council ACT Region recently launched its Make the Switch website, which provides information to Canberra households about how and why to switch from using gas to electricity for cooking and heating: www.maketheswitch.org.au.