Is gas more environmentally friendly than electricity?

Type Of FuelCO2 (tons) per MWh
Coal (Eskom)1.03 (average)
LPG0.241
NG0.181
Solar0 (during operation)

Based on CO2 emissions, LPG is a lot better for the environment. Both types of fuel are “bad”, but coal is significantly worse than gas. I have used coal for this comparison as most of South Africa runs on coal. LPG is a much cleaner burning fuel and is all around a better for the environment, it is not the best but it is much better.

Why gas is better

Clean Burning

Gas burns a lot cleaner than coal or similar flues meaning it leaves no residue from combustion (granted the combustion receives enough oxygen). Ethanethiol is added to LPG, to give it a smell, which when burned produces CO2 and sulfur dioxide, however, this is a very small amount so LPG and Natural gas are a very clean alternative to coal or other biomas.

Its “free”

Most LPG is extracted in the process of refining petrol or it is harvested from naturally occurring gases trapped in the Earths crust. If LPG was not extracted these gasses would make their way into the atmosphere anyway so we might as well make use of them before then. It only makes sense to not use LPG if we did not use any crude oil products. Even if we stopped using crude oil, LPG can still be created from other biomass sources making it a carbon-neutral fuel source.

Why Coal is worse than gas

Solid waste

Coal not only leaves behind CO2 but also leaves ash that needs to be put in landfills and can contain toxic substances that negatively impact the environment further especially water supplies. With LPG there is no waste that needs to be cleaned up, it burns and that’s it.

Black carbon

Coal and wood release black carbon into the air which is also called soot. Current estimates say that Black carbon contributes to 16% of the earth’s warming. It’s important to note that LPG can also release black carbon if the LPG combustion does not receive enough oxygen.

Other Air Toxins

Along with CO2 and Black carbon, coals combustion gasses can also contain other substances that contribute to to various health complications. These substances include:

  • mercury
  • lead
  • sulfur dioxide
  • nitrogen oxides
  • particulates
  • various other heavy metals

What about solar power?

Solar is a great source of power and obviously does not produce any CO2 emissions while in operation. However, the environmental impact of mining silicon and lithium is not well documented at this time. If you are environmentally conscious and can the upfront cost to supplement some of your gas and electricity usage with solar you should as it stands to reason that the environmental impact of solar is not going to be nearly as bad as coal when you factor the long term benefits of solar.

Solar Panels

The part of solar panels that produce electricity is made from silicon which comes from Silicon dioxide/silica (the stuff they put in your shoes). To remove the 2 oxygen atoms from the silicon the silica is heated to about 2000 degrees with coal and a source of carbon for the oxygen atoms to bond to and the process releases carbon monoxide. So refining silicon contributes to carbon emissions but the amount should, in theory, the quite low and the energy produced by the solar panel will make up for the carbon emissions in manufacturing. Solar panels can also be recycled though there is not that much demand for solar recycling at this point because the solar panels sold 20 years ago are most probably still in use and solar popularity 20 years ago was not as much as it is today.

Lithium ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are better than most of the battery technologies on the market, they have a reasonable life span and above average efficiency and are becoming increasingly cheaper. However, they have not been that easy to recycle so there have been some negative impacts from used-up batteries, like fires and toxic waste. That being said its impact is nowhere near that of coal and efforts to recycle lithium-ion batteries have increased and are increasing, making it a more viable choice now and down the road.

So the environmental impact of gas versus electricity ultimately depends on how that electricity is generated. If your electricity provider uses more renewable sources like wind or solar then electricity will be more environmentally friendly. However, if your electricity provider uses mainly coal, like Eskom in South Africa, then gas is going to be much better than electricity in terms of environmental impact unless you use your own solar panels plus Lithium-ion batteries.

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