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Banning gas connections to new developments as part of the planning system - a discussion

The idea of banning gas connections as part of new development has gained traction recently, with the City of Sydney Council voting to adopt such a policy recently for Development Applications within their local government area. It has also become adopted policy in Victoria.

This article provides a discussion of this issue. In line with demand, almost all reporting on this issue tends to be framed around black-and-white notions such as “fossil fuels good”, “fossil fuels bad”, “renewables” “good” or “bad” etc. This article nevertheless seeks to provide a detailed discussion that is probably of interest to only a minority of readers.


As part of new development approvals, most Council’s routinely impose conditions of approval that certain utility services be provided as part of a development, these may include:


- Water and sewerage services

- Electricity supply

- Telecommunication services


Some Council’s no longer require the provision of telecommunication services as part of new developments, as advances in mobile telephone/internet technology arguably means that fixed line telecommunication services are no longer an essential service. Council’s do not typically require the connection of gas as it is also not an essential service (electricity supply can be a substitute).


Development approval conditions haven't historically been used to prohibit the connection of certain services, although theoretically, this may be a legal option.


While essentially all of the state has the availability of electricity services, not all areas of the state are connected to natural gas pipeline networks, although liquefied petroleum gas canisters are usually available as an alternative.


The below chart published by the Australian Government shows that gas is a relatively significant portion of Australia’s energy mix at 27.1% in 2020-2021.


Much of the argument in favour of eliminating direct burning of gas with electricity is that it is being replaced by “renewables” and thus better for the overall environment and greenhouse gas emissions. Data shows that in 2020-2021, solar and wind only make up approximately 4% of Australia’s energy consumption. The data is higher for total electrical power generation at 18.1%, although this shows that simply replacing a gas connection with electricity in a home is not converting a fossil fuel source to renewables (at least at the present time).


Curiously, when looking at the overall uses of gas in Australia, the percentage used by households in terms of gas stoves and water heaters is basically negligible:

Jurisdictions that are further along with the “energy transition” than Australia such as Europe have similarly not eliminated fossil fuel use in electrical generation or otherwise through mass installation of solar panels and wind turbines.

See data from Germany below, which actually shows that total fossil fuel use is relatively unchanged despite huge investment in “renewables” as part of the “energiewende” programme. Unfortunately, they seem to have issues that are also likely to affect Australia in that solar panels generate essentially no electricity at night and relatively little in cloudy conditions. Similarly, there are substantial periods where wind speeds are relatively low and generate little electricity. Substantial energy goes into manufacturing and installing the solar and wind power. Given the lack of many affordable storage options, a large amount of fossil fuel back-up is therefore employed (coal, gas or oil). Electricity is also only a fraction of total energy use, with many sources being outside the electricity system, eg. power for trucks, aeroplanes, shipping, many manufacturing activities etc.

This shows the challenges in attempting to replace relatively dense forms of energy such as gas, coal and nuclear, with far less dense forms such as solar and wind. Past energy transitions have been from less dense sources to more dense sources eg. wood to coal and then coal to gas or nuclear. Humanity has never voluntarily made a transition from a more dense source to a less dense source. It can actually be argued that we (or any other species of animal) are biologically incapable of doing so over the long term, unless forced to through resource limits or some other factor.


The preoccupation with eliminating gas is curious as an important environmental priority, given that it is by far the cleanest burning source of fossil energy, with coal and oil still representing 28.7% and 36.2% of total energy use respectively. We tend to burn the coal in relatively inefficient ways, through coal plants that have an average age of over 30 years and achieve relatively low efficiency compared to more modern plants that have been installed more recently in other countries. Waste heat also tends to be evaporated off or discharged into lakes or rivers rather than being reused, as it often is in other countries.


Notionally (at least in an urban area such as the City of Sydney local government area where most electrical power is imported from outside of the city) there would be localised benefits in air quality in replacing gas burning with electric heating elements. There are currently far greater sources of air pollution in urban areas including emissions from vehicles (especially heavy vehicles) than there are from gas stoves or hot water heaters, however.

Of course, if the argument was centred purely around reducing carbon dioxide emissions, replacing coal with other sources of energy would achieve far more than seeking to eliminate gas. See table below.


It is also worth noting that direct burning of gas is relatively efficient. A typical coal fired power station only converts a fraction of the energy in the coal to electricity with the remainder largely wasted. In China, the Pingshan Phase II, a cutting-edge 1.35-GW ultrasupercritical coal-fired unit, commissioned last year, achieves a remarkable net efficiency of 49.37%. There isn’t much data publicly available on the efficiency on the ageing fleet of coal fired power stations in NSW that still form the backbone of electricity generation, although with an average age of over 35 years, overall efficiency may be greater than a third lower.


Similarly, a large percentage of the gas electrical power generation on the Australian electricity grid consists of less efficient open cycle plants, also achieving efficiency around 35%. (There are a smaller number of more efficient combined-cycle gas plants on the grid achieving higher efficiency around 60%). Efficiency of a gas burning stove is approximately 48-72% , gas heating approximately 60-92% and a gas hot water system approximately 67% or higher.

Gas does have some environmental impacts associated with burning such as potential asthma and respiratory problems, although it is cleaner burning that coal or oil. There are some impacts associated with transportation and the construction of pipelines, although the impacts are often limited with pipelines usually being located underground. Electricity transmission can be argued to create greater impacts and land use conflicts with high voltage transmission lines usually located above ground and most people do not like living near them or having them pass through their property. There are impacts associated with the extraction of gas including land use impacts/conflicts with other uses such as agriculture, water impacts etc, although these are far less than coal for example.


It can be argued that coal extraction generally has more environmental and land use impacts than gas extraction, with underground mining causing subsidence/other impacts and open-cut mining creating impacts associated with clearing of vegetation, dust impacts and land form impacts associated with large scale earthworks etc.


Conclusion:

All sources of energy from gas, to electricity generated from “renewables” or fossil fuels generates trade offs in terms of environmental and land use impacts.


As can be seen above, there are extremely limited environmental benefits associated with replacing gas connections in homes at the present time. They may even be negative in terms of carbon dioxide emissions with a large amount of old and inefficient coal generation on the grid and less efficient open-cycle gas plants. Land use conflicts are likely to accelerate across regional areas with less energy dense solar and wind generation being installed long distances from centres of demand in the cities requiring exponential increases in the amount of installed power lines (and fossil fuelled back up plants still being required). It appears that much of the fossil fueled back up to renewables will be made up of ageing and inefficient coal plants, that are far less efficient that newer coal plants that have been installed in other countries such as China.

If we were serious about solutions to achieve some practical benefits on the environment, potential options might be to:


- End new development in the form of sprawl, large distances from the centre of cities and large detached dwellings in locations far from shopping, employment and public transportation that forces residents to own private motor vehicles which are extremely energy consuming and inefficient.

- Ending obsession with population growth, primarily achieved through policies that promote mass immigration. A higher population means pressure towards higher energy use, more pressure on clearing of habitat of native plants/animals and agricultural land for urban development.

- Lower overall energy use (probably something humans will never agree to voluntarily, as with accepting a lower population, although measures to increase the efficiency of buildings and encourage smaller dwellings may have some limited impact).

- Prioritising public transport and employment locations to be in proximity to public transport/high density housing rather than policies that encourage car use, road and motorway construction.

- More efficient forms of generation eg. replacing coal with gas, older inefficient coal plants with more modern supercritical plants or open-cycle gas plants with more efficient combined-cycle plants that would require less gas or coal to generate the same amount of electricity and thus lower pollution impacts.

- Reusing waste heat from power stations for purposes such as municipal hot water, manufacturing facilities, heating etc. rather than simply letting it evaporate off or discharging waste heat into lakes or rivers (more dense forms of urban development would be more conducive to the economics and practicality of this).

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