From gas to electricity for rental households

I remember going to inspect rentals and being stoked to find a gas cooktop in the kitchen. Like many of us, I've had bad experiences of old electric stovetops that take an age to heat up and cool down. It's also sometimes unclear when they are even on, and I've burnt many a teatowel this way. Gas is what I (and my housemates, unhappy about burnt teatowels) wanted. 

I never want to see one of these again.

But in coming years, this isn't going to be so true. Gas is a fossil fuel and we need to stop burning it in our homes (it's also often more expensive, and it causes indoor air pollution which causes asthma). So it's becoming much more common for homes to be all-electric. Reverse-cycle AC is replacing gas heaters and gas stoves are being replaced by electric induction stoves which, thank heavens, do not have the many disadvantages of old-school electric cookers.

This is an exciting opportunity for people renting. No gas connection fees! Less childhood asthma! Being able to cool your home in summer! But there are also risks. In this little post I want to outline some risks and how Better Renting is thinking about this issue.

The main risk is this: people who rent are unique in that we don't have control over the appliances in our homes. It's not up to you to replace a gas heater with an electric AC. We're stuck with what our landlords offer and asking nicely is at best useless and at worst it puts you at risk of eviction.

This on its own wouldn't be so bad but the problem is that gas is becoming more and more expensive. The first part of this is just that there's no more cheap gas left. We've already used a lot of it, and Australia is exporting a whole lot of what's left. At a pretty basic level, gas costs more now than it used to.

But not only that. If gas costs more, people start using less. Some people (lucky owner-occupiers) will go all-electric. This cuts their bills, and it's essential to cut climate pollution. But...someone has to keep paying for the current gas network. And with fewer people paying, the cost per household will go up. The "someone" left paying will be the people with the least control over their appliances. This is likely to include renters.

So it's great to think about a whole bunch of people being able to transition their homes and enjoying cheaper and cleaner energy. It's not so great to think about renters being left behind paying higher prices for a fuel source that makes their families sick.

So what can we do about this? This is a hard question. Answers will have to come from consultation and dialogue, and input from affected communities. But there a few things that can help.

One thing that helps a lot is making our homes more energy efficient through minimum energy efficiency standards for rentals. If renters don't need to use as much energy to stay warm in winter, this will help to offset any increases in fuel costs. It will reduce the risk of people being in fuel poverty, unable to afford to keep their home at a healthy temperature.

The second thing is thinking about how we swap the appliances in rental properties. The best time to do this is when an appliance has failed and is being replaced: we don't need to do it all at once. Governments could allow existing gas appliances to remain until end of life, but then require efficient electric replacements. The case for doing this is particularly strong in rental homes: if a landlord is making money renting out a property, maybe they also have a responsibility to prevent indoor pollution?

The third thing to do is change how we think about this. This transition needs to happen from a climate point of view, and it needs to happen quickly. But we have to keep in mind the housing costs facing households today: not just rents (which are going up) but the related energy costs (which are also going up!). When governments or civil society organisations are thinking about accelerating electrification at a household level, they must think about groups like renters, and consider what can be done to make sure these groups also benefit. The ACT Government is a good example of this: they are getting serious about electrification, while also planning a ceiling insulation standard for rentals, and providing home energy assessments to help more renters enjoy more efficient homes and lower power bills.

As our energy supplies change, unless governments have a hand on the tiller, existing inequities will be reproduced and possibly even worsened. With forward planning and input from communities on the frontline, the transition from gas to electricity can be a great thing for renters, helping to address many of the cost and health challenges we are already facing.

By Joel Dignam