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General · 15th February 2007
Barry Saxifrage
GLOBAL WARMING FACEOFF - Want a simple way to help turn down the heat on global warming? Well if you use propane you may be in luck. I did a bit of research on the impact of propane vs. electricity and the choice is clear...

Simply switching from propane to electric when you have the chance will make tons of difference. Literally. Every 160 gallons of propane you burn adds a ton of new CO2 to global warming. Using an equivalent amount of BC electricity releases about 15 times less. Put another way, it takes 15 years of using electricity to have the same global warming impact of one year of using propane for the same purpose.

As one simple example, an electric cook stove used all year in BC will result in only about 60 pounds of new CO2. The same amount of cooking with propane stove will release nearly 1000 pounds.

Global Warming is caused primarily by humans burning fossil fuels. This releases tons of new CO2 per person into the atmosphere increasing the concentration. More CO2 = more heat. The problem is, as usual, too much of a good thing.

Propane is a fossil fuel. It is mostly carbon, all from deep underground. This carbon is not currently in circulation. When we burn it, it increases the amount of CO2 in circulation in the air. Every one pound of propane becomes three pounds of CO2. Odd but true...because each C from propane is joined by 2 Os from the air. Triple damages.

Everytime you heat something with propane you are heating the planet a tiny bit as well. Switching to electricity where you can will prevent tons of new CO2 from being released. A rare case of something that is both easy and effective. Low hanging fruit. When you get a chance, grab it.

BC Hydro generates most of it's electricity from falling water...aka rain and snow. You can also think of rain and snow as a solar-recharged battery. Sun evaporates water, heats it enough to lift it thousands of feet up, then it falls back down. As it falls it turns a turbine. We are blessed in BC in this regard. We get lots of rain and snow and have plenty of steep land.

While there are many serious environmental problems with BC Hydro dams...from a global warming standpoint, hydro power has far lower impact than fossil fuel burning. Everyone should weigh for themselves the problems of global warming, problems of dams, the problems of other energy options...and make their energy choices accordingly.

BC Hydro does burn some fossil fuels to create about 5% of it's electricity. This results in a small amount of new CO2 per kilowatt hour. To emit a ton of new C02 you would need to use over 50,000kWh of electricity. The same amount of propane would release 16 tons.

So currently BC electricity is 5% global-warming bad news and propane is, bad. But what about the future?

To borrow an old saying: Propane will be propane. It's never going to be anything but 100% bad for global warming. Every bit that is burned adds new CO2 to the air. Bad now...bad later. Bummer but true.

Is electricity going to get cleaner or dirtier? Well just a couple days ago, Gordon Campbell stunned everyone by proclaiming that "all new and existing electricity produced in B.C. will be required to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2016." In less than a decade every kilowatt of electricity is targeted to have zero CO2 output. This is a radical statement that sets the new gold standard for electricity generation. It out-does even Arnold's big new California visionary plan. This also effectively kills the two big coal-fired power plants planned for BC. It makes BC a world leader in commitment to clean electricity. What was already a great choice from global warming standpoint just got a lot better.

Zero greenhouse emissions. Tasty. Very Tasty.

Finally there is the dream some folks have of sustainably producing our power locally. Once again electricity is the clear winner over propane. There are dozens of ways to generate our own electicity from solar to wind to tidal to hydro. But there is no way I know of that we are ever going to produce propane here.

Clearly there are folks on Cortes who aren't hooked up to the electric grid. For them the propane network might be a good choice until a better solution comes along. But for everyone else, making the switch is about the easiest thing you can do to make a difference. As ironic as it's hard for me to escape the fact that when it comes to global warming and B.C...the grid is a better choice.

Got some other facts and figures? Did I miss a key argument in propane's favour? Ready to switch and want to encourage others to? Write a comment and keep the conversation going.

Update: In the few days since i've written this, the latest global temperature numbers came out. Canada was 5F warmer in January than average. Siberia was 9F warmer. The earth as a whole smashed the hottest January since records were kept, by almost a full degree F. This is a far, far bigger single year jump than ever seen before. The temperature line is now moving more than twice as fast as plant communities can migrate. It is time to start dramatically reducing our fossil fuel use now. If you can ditch the propane and natural gas in exchange for something with less of an impact, why not?

* Electricity has 3413 BTU/kWh and is 95% efficient at heating.
* BC Hydro releases about 18g CO2/kWh = 1 lb CO2/25kWh
* Result = BC Hydro generates 80,000 BTUs of heat per pound of CO2

* Propane has 91600 BTU/gallon and is 70% efficient at heating.
* Propane releases 12.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon.
* Result = Propane generates 5,000 BTUs of heat per pound of CO2

* 5,000,000 BTU/year is a reasonable estimate for a cortes home cooking needs.

* Propane is produced only by the big petroleum companies in the world as it is a product of natural gas and oil refining. In Canada it is then taken to Alberta and pumped into underground salt caverns. When needed it is piped and trucked to a series of transfer stations until it reaches you. This is just as much of a mega-corporate "grid" as electricity wires are. There is nothing local or small-scale or alternative about it.

* Natural gas is worse for global warming than propane. Natural gas is methane which if it leaks at all is ten times more warming than CO2. It also produces fewer BTU per pound of CO2 emitted.

* CO2 naturally is very rare in the atmosphere. It makes up only 0.03% of the air compared to 78% for nitrogen and 21% for oxygen. That is why human emissions can so dramatically increase the amount of CO2 up there.

* Results will vary. If you live Alberta or Saskatchewan, please don't try this at home until you do the math yourselves. Parts of Canada, like these, produce most of their electricity from burning fossil-fuels. They emit 50 times more CO2 per kWh. The beauty of our 5 vs 100 equation is much messier there.

from Government of Canada at
from Government of Canada at
What a beauty. Worth switching for?
What a beauty. Worth switching for?