Understanding the tech behind the gas vs. electric stove debate
Jan 17, 2023

Understanding the tech behind the gas vs. electric stove debate

There are long-term benefits to using electric induction stoves, but also upfront costs for consumers and challenges for the grid.

Like the Rolling Stones vs. the Beatles, “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek” or cats vs. dogs, the question of gas stoves vs. electric has somehow become a character-defining one.

The discourse was ignited last week by a member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Richard Trumka Jr., who suggested his agency was considering a ban on gas stoves. He has since stepped that back a bit.

But the debate continues to simmer. Electric partisans say their ranges are healthier for people and the environment, while gas stove lovers say flames are just better to cook on and resilient in power outages.

So how do modern electric stoves work? And would we have the infrastructure to support them?

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. He said there are a lot of misperceptions based on outdated models.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ethan Elkind: Well, we’re talking about the cooktop, not the oven. So the type of technology that is less common in the U.S. — it’s much more common in Europe — is a magnetic induction range, which is powered by electricity and uses magnets actually to heat up the pan. And so it doesn’t actually have direct heat. It’s very powerful, very energy efficient. And that is, I think, the real alternative that most people are talking about when they’re talking about transitioning off of gas ranges. But the public has in its mind, I believe, mostly these sort of the older-fashioned, I call it, the electric coils. You know, that coil?

Meghan McCarty Carino: Yeah, that kind of cinnamon roll looking, yeah …

Elkind: Exactly. And so people say, “Well, you’re gonna force me to use electric coils, that’s not as appealing,” as if people, you know, if they actually had experience using the induction ranges, which are really vastly superior technologies to gas cooktops.

McCarty Carino: I was surprised to see statistics on how common electric stoves actually already are. I’ve been in California my whole life, I’ve always had gas ranges. But electric stoves are pretty common already, right?

Elkind: That’s correct. Although we’re not really clear how much of those electric stoves are old-fashioned coil types versus the newer magnetic induction. But yeah, it’s very concentrated geographically. For example, in the American South, most people actually cook with electricity. But in some of the coastal states, you’ll see that gas ranges are much more common. And particularly as you go up the income scale, higher-income people tend to use gas more than lower-income people. So it is a diverse picture in the United States on how distributed these technologies are.

McCarty Carino: What are some of the arguments in favor of going induction?

Elkind: Well, the biggest one, I think, for most people is really the indoor air quality issue. I think most people don’t realize how polluting the gas ranges are. When you light up that blue flame, it leads to all sorts of exposure to very harmful pollutants. There can be, depending on how kind of well-connected everything is, there could be exposure to benzene, to carbon monoxide. But you know, probably the biggest benefit for people in switching to induction is that it is a superior technology. The worst induction range is four times more powerful than the best gas range. You can boil water, essentially, in within a minute. It’s pretty impressive. I actually just had one installed in my kitchen, because my gas range basically died on me a few months ago. And it is amazing just even to see water boil. I never thought I would say that, but it is, it’s pretty spectacular how powerful it is and how precise the cooking can be. But there’s a lot of challenges for people to get these appliances installed. They can be more expensive with upfront costs, although there are a lot of incentives now, including from the federal government to defray those costs. And there’s some logistical challenges to putting them into kitchens as well.

McCarty Carino: Right, this does seem sort of similar to what we’re seeing with the transition to electric vehicles that this could raise all kinds of equity and logistical questions as to how to do this on a wide scale?

Elkind: Yeah, there are going to be some challenges. I think the bigger implementation challenges for existing buildings and for homeowners who have to retrofit their homes in some cases by putting in these new all electric appliances like an induction range. One of the big challenges is that electrical panels may not have the capacity for installing a pretty high-powered electrical appliance in their kitchen. There are some workarounds, though. For example, with my electrical panel, we didn’t have the capacity available, so we installed a switch device that allows us to essentially toggle from our air conditioner over to our appliance. And so for, you know, half an hour while we’re cooking or so, we won’t have air conditioning access, but it’s a lot better than spending thousands of dollars for a panel upgrade. You know, if you’re putting in a new appliance, it may necessitate a new countertop in your kitchen, for example. There are some challenges around it. But I think for most people, the benefits would greatly outweigh the costs. And with the Inflation Reduction Act, there are a lot of incentives now to purchase these induction ranges. So the price is going to come down as the demand increases.

McCarty Carino: One concern that comes up a lot when it comes to electric stovetops is they would be useless during power outages, you know, say we have an earthquake, the power goes out in California, and we’re used to having a gas range that will still work, we can still make our emergency oatmeal. That’s less likely to happen with an electric range, right?

Elkind: You know, there are technology solutions for this. First of all, our hope is that the electricity grid can stay resilient. There’s some other technology fixes just even right on the appliance itself. I’ve heard about companies selling induction ranges that actually come attached with a battery, so you could keep the induction range going even during an outage. And, you know, you’d have to weigh all of this against the costs versus, you know, the long-term sustainability on the climate with continuing to burn natural gas. There’s trade-offs with all of this, but I think there are technology fixes on this concern around blackouts in particular.

McCarty Carino: What kind of infrastructure would we need, you know, if everyone went induction tomorrow? You mentioned your own kind of personal electric panel in your house. There’s also the power grid. Are we set up to handle this kind of transition?

Elkind: Yeah, I think we are. I mean, it’s something we do have to plan for. So maybe as of today, if all of a sudden we went to all electric vehicles, got rid of all gasoline and got natural gas out of all buildings, you know, we don’t have enough power right now. But the fact is, this transition is not going to happen today or tomorrow. It’s going to take a decade or more to really fully implement. So what needs to happen is that we need to be planning for this with the electricity grid and making sure that we’re getting enough renewable energy, you know, particularly large-scale solar and wind facilities deployed on the grid as possible to meet this future demand. I’ll give an example. If we in California were to move to all electric vehicles by 2035 as a state policy, that’s equivalent to about a 3% increase in electricity demand per year. That’s substantial, but it’s not unmanageable. It’s something that you can certainly plan for, and just takes some proper planning and deployment of the clean-technology resources that are already readily available and relatively cost effective to deploy. We just need to make sure more of it happens, and happens quickly.

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer