Watching Gasland at the Little

I had heard some good things about it, so I headed over to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see GasLand. Alas, due to being "short listed" for a possible Academy Award for it, director Josh Fox was not available in person and instead joined a question-and-answer session afterward via Skype (which actually works pretty good.)

Fox lives in his family home in rural Pennsylvania and received a letter from a company asking for a lease of his property for hydrofracking — a technique for extracting natural gas from a specific kind of shale deposit by pumping a chemical slurry through a mineshaft at high pressure to fracture the shale. Not knowing anything about the process, he started filming (presumably shortly after) he started trying to contact the companies involved to ask some questions. Coming up dry, he decided to do some more research and found that fracking has been used in other areas and there was a correlation to contaminated water supplies. As you've likely heard about the film, the dramatic demonstration is tap water that can be set ablaze: the water supplies became contaminated with natural gas which then sputters and bubbles out the tap.

What is incomprehensible to me is that during George W. Bush's term, he signed a law that exempted hydrofracking companies from the clean air and clean water acts. Now, water supplies and air is highly contaminated in hydrofracking communities, yet the companies involved refuse to acknowledge that it is their work that causes it. The simplest explanation to me is that the companies know it is difficult to legally prove the source of contamination, so they offer no cooperation in assessing their role in the problem which makes it nearly impossible for residents to successfully get corrective measures taken. Gasland contrasts this with hydrofracking experts being questioned before Congress and insisting their methods are completely safe — despite that they are pumping known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds underground to fracture shale adjacent to natural aquifers.

My own take is that given the choice between contaminated tap water and expensive natural gas, I'll take expensive natural gas any day. If push came to shove, I could bundle up, insulate my house better, use localized electric heat, or start burning wood. But I would be unable to perform the filtration and fractional distillation necessary to extract safe water rapidly enough that I wouldn't die first from dehydration.

The argument is that there is plenty of water so it doesn't matter. And even though our bodies need a rather pure and clean water, there is presently enough, at least in the United States. But polluting these water sources is no good for anybody. In fact, as Gasland points out, the proposed hydrofracking in Pennsylvania and New York sets the stage to potentially pollute the aquifers that supply New York City, Philadelphia, and Delaware: some 15 million people.

That got me to thinking.

I think everyone has had fantasies of the "post-apocalyptic utopia": the one where the population is decimated, you and all the people you care about survive, and there is now a surplus of resources at your disposal — either a natural disaster, or in recent years, zombie survival fantasies. When I put the pieces together, I wonder if the wealthy, powerful people that head these companies believe they can achieve this sick fantasy. I don't doubt they are in a position to secure clean water, food, and shelter for themselves and all the people they care about. By supplying cheap natural gas, they are in a position to further amplify their advantage over everyone else. And if they also poison the populace — or at the very least make them dependent on corporate-supplied water — they may actually be in a position to live as kings while the world crumbles and dies around them.

While my prediction seems astonishingly dire and alarmist, I really can't conceive of a simpler rationalization. As I had mentioned, if I were working for one of these companies and they outlined the system, my first question would be to ask how the environment would be protected. And I certainly could not make a claim as those who were questioned by Congress. I really can't fathom how people think this is okay, unless I assume their goals include extinguishing the vast majority of human life on this planet.

Is Electric Heat Cost-Effective?

So I did the cost-of-gas analysis last week and now I got to wondering if the cost of natural gas was high enough to justify electric heat. I first heard about this from someone who was building a workshop. They were trying to figure out if they should bother to install a gas furnace or if electric heat would be cost-effective — so I got the bug in my head about the conversion between the heat energy in natural gas and that in electricity.

So here's the deal: like last week, we have the cost of gas heat (Cg) and the cost of electric heat (Ce) which, at the break-even point will be the same:

Cg = Ce

And what we want to end up with is a break-even point where the price of a unit of natural gas (Pg) is some constant multiplied by the price of a unit of electrical energy (Pe). This is where it gets a little funny because I'm just going to assume the efficiency of a gas furnace is 80% and that an electric heater is 95%. In other words, the total heat in a cubic-foot of natural gas has a certain amount of chemical energy that can be converted to heat, but a furnace is not perfectly efficient at recovering that heat as usable heat in your house (i.e. some necessarily needs to go up the chimney to get rid of the carbon dioxide). Electric heaters are much more efficient as the easiest thing you can do with electric current is to turn it into heat — it's more like 100% efficient, but I'll assume there's some cable losses in the house and maybe it has a fan that does non-heating work.

It also gets a little funny because when I talk about the total cost of heating, for purposes of determining the conversion factor between prices-per-unit, it doesn't matter how much heat — just that it's the same amount. So let's say it's 2000 Calories — like kilocalories or the Calories in terms of food. Trust me. It'll be a fun result.

So now what we've got is that the cost is the unit price * 2000 Calories:

2000 Calories * Pg = 2000 Calories * Pe

Obviously the 2000 Calorie factor cancels out — but I'll leave it there for a while.

Now let's turn to the electricity. We pay for electricity in kilowatt-hour blocks. If I go to Google, I see that 2000 Calories is 2.324 kilowatt-hours. If I factor in that 95% efficiency, I'll need 2.447 kilowatt-hours to make 2000 Calories of heat.

Now gas gets kind of weird [great, more weird, right?] because it's delivered in hundreds of cubic feet (ccf) but billed as therms (100,000 British Thermal Units or 100,000 BTUs). RG&E does the conversion on the bill: 1.0136 therm is 1 ccf. Again turning to Google, 2000 Calories is 0.0793 therms. If I factor in that 80% efficiency, I'll need 0.0991 therms to make 2000 Calories of heat.

So now what I have is:

0.0991 therms * Pg = 2.447 kilowatt-hours * Pe

And since Pg is in dollars/therm and Pe is in dollars/kilowatt-hour, it all works out to dollars-equals-dollars which is perfect.

Moving stuff around, that's:

Pg = 2.447 kilowatt-hours * Pe / 0.0991 therms
Pg = 24.69 kilowatt-hours/therm * Pe

In other words, if you take the price-per-kilowatt of electricity, and multiply it by 24.69, you get the price-per-therm of gas for the same amount of heat.

I had signed up for ConEdison Solutions GreenPower (which is all renewable wind and hydroelectric) so there's separate sections for how much electricity costs. On the last bill I used 363 kwh and paid ConEdison $36.12 and RG&E another $20.93 (-$19.38 in fixed charges for the privilege of being a customer), so that's a total of $37.67 in charges based on a per-kwh rate. Dividing the total by 363, I get an overall cost of $0.104/kwh.

Doing the conversion, if my gas cost is higher than 24.69 * $0.104 = $2.57/therm, then it's cheaper to run electric heat.

I used 157.1 therms of gas, but 3 therms are included for "free" in my $14.38 customer charge and $0.62 "bill issuance charge" — $15.00 total. I paid $209.20 for gas with all the surcharges and such, so removing the $15.00 fixed charge, that's $194.20. Dividing by the 154.1 therms used, that's $1.26/therm — just about half the cost of heating with electricity.

But hey, now you can do the math yourself with your own bill. If it's easier, you can round up the conversion to 25 — so the break-even point is when the cost of a therm of gas is 25 times the cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

Oh yeah, but what about the fun with the 2000 Calorie number? That's about a day's worth of food, right? So if I ran on electricity, it would cost 2.447 kilowatt-hours * $0.104/kwh = $0.25, or if I ran on natural gas, that would be 0.0991 therms * $1.26/therm = $0.12.