Gas stoves have been a staple of the modern American home for over a century. They were an amazing improvement over the previous way that most of the world cooked, the wood stove. These high tech appliances would help make cooking cleaner and easier thanks to the “natural” methane that could be easily piped directly into our homes. And for years it worked great. People were able to heat up their food without all of the air pollution that came with a wood fire. At least so we thought.
We have known for a long time that burning methane creates nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas, but most thought it was not created in a high enough concentration to be very impactful. But in December a study came out that alleged that not only are gas stoves affecting our health, they could possibly be blamed for around 12.7 percent of all childhood asthma cases. The study has since gone on to spark a political debate about the future of gas stoves in our homes, one that has taken an emotional, even comical, political turn.
Democrats have started calling for phasing out gas stoves due to their negative impact on air quality and health. Republicans have pushed back saying the move is misguided and that more evidence is needed. Some say that improper ventilation is the issue, since many cooking hoods in apartments don’t even vent to the outside. The lack of good ventilation is surely part of the problem (plus blowing greasy cooking air around the house is just kind of gross). But just requiring better hood exhaust probably isn’t going to be enough. Many people may not even use the vent fan properly, so there are likely to be calls for more regulation to protect people from the off-gas created from cooking.
If you trust the study, the most obvious solution is to switch to electric stoves. These reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and preserve our indoor air quality. But like anything, it isn’t always that easy. The first problem is that many buildings just don’t have enough power to make the switch. Electric stoves need anywhere from 20 to 60 amps, more than most circuits supply. Plus, they use 220 volts which means that they would need new wires to be run since most buildings don’t have a dedicated 220 volt circuit going to the kitchen. This will require massive upgrades to both buildings and our grid, which are all doable but will take time.
The other issue is even trickier than the logistics of electrical engineering. The public perception of electric stoves is really low. We all still associate electric stoves with the low-end heated coil burners that were the first iteration of the technology. Now there are induction stoves that can heat a pan quickly and evenly while remaining cool to the touch. They often require different pans—but don’t worry cast iron lovers, those work just fine (so does washing them with soap by the way). For people to embrace induction stoves they will need to come into contact with them more, at friends’ houses and maybe more importantly on the shows and social media feeds of our favorite chefs.
Right now it looks like the Biden administration is going to start giving a tax credit for home and building owners that switch to electrical stoves. That will likely just be the first step. California already is requiring new homes to have electric appliances and I think we will see other municipalities follow suit. Despite that, there may be other technologies that save our gas infrastructure. Hydrogen for example is clean burning and can be created with otherwise unused renewable energy. But for now that is pretty far off, hydrogen stoves are still in the prototype stage and gas stoves will need significant upgrades in order to be able to switch to hydrogen. Like it or not, we will start to see more and more electric stoves being installed. I guess it might be time to change the expression to “now we are cooking with induction.”
One of the hardest parts of the switch away from natural gas is how we have to abandon an absolutely amazing amount of infrastructure. This interactive map will show you exactly where the gas pipelines are in your city, sometimes they might surprise you on where they decided to run them.
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