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Issues of the Environment: City of Ann Arbor's moving to transition away from natural gas

John Mirsky, former chair of the Ann Arbor Energy Commission.
John Mirsky
John Mirsky, former chair of the Ann Arbor Energy Commission.


  • 2024 marks four years since Ann Arbor declared a global climate emergency. To address the problem, the city says we must shift from fossil fuels to energy production that produces minimal carbon emissions.
  • Ann Arbor isn’t talking about a total gas ban right now, but the city has banned gas-powered leaf blowers and the city has proposed a ban on gas connections in new construction. Attempts to codify bans on natural gas have faced legal challenges. In 2023, the U.S. Senate proposed a federal ban on local bans on gas stoves, hookups, or other appliances.
  • Frequent power outages in Southeast Michigan are another common argument against moving away from natural gas. According to Planet Detroit, Michigan experienced the second-highest number of power outages, during which at least 50,000 customers or more lost power, between 2000 and 2021. Outages increased by 78% between 2011 and 2021 compared to the prior decade. Extreme weather is making things worse. Severalrounds of severe storms last summer caused outages for hundreds of thousands of residents, along with the February ice storm that cut power to 700,000 Michiganders.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to explore alternative ways of heating our homes. Natural gas is a contributor to the climate crisis. And, in many places around the country, there's a push to get off the gas, and that includes Ann Arbor. I'm David Fair, and this is Issues of the Environment. The primary questions are: Would it be better for the environment? And is it feasible to do? Well, our guest today says "Yes, it is," further contending not only should we do it, we need to do it. John Mirsky is the former chair and current member of the Ann Arbor Energy Commission. And thanks for the time today, John.

John Mirsky: You're welcome.

David Fair: Which is worse for the environment: the use of natural gas or the manner in which we actually extract that gas from the earth?

John Mirsky: Actually, both are problematic. Natural gas occurs naturally. And, at the wellhead, natural gas leaks into the environment. Natural gas is actually 95% methane, and methane is a 20-times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. So, there are issues there. There are issues in its distribution to homes and buildings. And then, when we burn it, it produces CO2 and other pollutants. And those, of course, contribute to climate change and global warming as well.

David Fair: Now, obviously, we use it so prevalently because natural gas is abundant. It is relatively cheap. And, in fact, as a nation, I would say we and our economy depend on it. Fair enough?

John Mirsky: True. We built our economy on cheap and readily accessible fossil fuels.

David Fair: What percentage of our residential spaces are heated with natural gas?

John Mirsky: The vast majority are heated with some type of natural gas-like product. So, in some areas, electric is used--electric baseboard heating. That's resistance heating. But I would say probably three quarters of homes are either heated with natural gas or propane, which is a similar type of fossil fuel.

David Fair: So, as we look forward and try and create a transition, we know generating electricity as it's done today has environmental and climate consequences. How much of a difference would electrification of a city like Ann Arbor make in our impact?

John Mirsky: Well, Ann Arbor is obviously just a small portion of what the contributions are globally to climate change. But one of the key things about Ann Arbor is that Ann Arbor is a leader in climate action. And the lessons learned in a place like Ann Arbor can be then applied, and those best practices implemented immediately, as opposed to just replicating all the lessons learned in the mistakes and everything else. So, what Ann Arbor does is, maybe small in its impact, but it can be really leveraged, so that it has a really big benefit across the board.

David Fair: Our Issues of the Environment conversation with Ann Arbor Energy Commission member John Mirsky continues on 89 one WEMU. Let's talk about some of the alternatives to natural gas. We have wind, solar, geothermal systems, heat pumps. Does a transition off natural gas likely need to include a combination of all of these things?

John Mirsky: Well, natural gas is used in different ways, some of which can be replaced--essentially all of which can be replaced--by the types of renewable energy sources that you talked about. So, solar and wind is obviously not going to be used for heating a home or a commercial building. But it can be used along with other types of generation to generate the electricity that then is used in the heat pump that can be used then to heat a home or a commercial building. So, yes, all of those are a part of the overall climate equation to getting off of burning fossil fuels and using more renewable sources for not only buildings, but also industry as well as for transportation.

David Fair: Well, you've taken many of these measures at your own home in Ann Arbor. You've installed a geothermal heating and cooling system. You've added solar panels to your house, electrified your appliances, created greater efficiencies with new windows and the like. And you have an electric car. What was the total cost to you to make that transition?

John Mirsky: The cost was significant. So, some of the cost I would have had to incur because when we bought our home, we had a very old air conditioning unit. We had a very old furnace. Some of the other appliances were a little bit newer. But we also then had to soon replace our natural gas water heater. And what we did is we also installed, as you mentioned, geothermal, which is also called a ground source heat pump. The wells for those are extremely expensive. I would say altogether, for our home, we probably spent on the order of 50 or more thousand dollars--so, a significant, expenditure. In the meantime, there are other technologies, particularly air source heat pumps, that we would consider that are less expensive.

David Fair: I've seen those. Somewhere between, like, five and $9,000.

John Mirsky: That sounds about right. Yes. And there's different types of, units, by the way. There have been more heat pumps sold in the United States than natural gas furnaces. So, they are becoming very prevalent, not only in the South, where the efficiency is an issue, but also in places like Michigan and even Canada and the northeast. So, they really are penetrating the market. And the cost is a part of a factor as well.

David Fair: But as we look to a switch to or a transition to majority use of electricity, how is it going to be feasible in a society where a majority are living paycheck-to-paycheck with rather modest savings? It not only becomes a financial burden, but it also is an inconvenience. And, as Americans, we don't like inconvenience.

John Mirsky: That is true. So, first of all, there are significant incentives now for purchasing green types of products, electrified products, coming from the Inflation Reduction Act. Those are about a 30% tax reduction. There is the ability to get green loans from various entities, including Michigan Saves. And there are also actually some communities not yet here in Ann Arbor, although that's being discussed with the sustainable energy utility that's being considered where you could do on-bill financing. So, essentially, if there is an upgrade made to your home and you electrify an appliance, the cost of that appliance would be added to your energy bill and would be amortized or paid back over a very long period of time. So, there are a number of different means that people now have available to be able to make the transition.

David Fair: Our Issues of the Environment conversation with Ann Arbor Energy Commission member John Mirsky continues on 89 one WEMU. And you just mentioned the possibility of a municipal utility in Ann Arbor. There's an ongoing feasibility study to determine if creation of such a utility is the way to go. In your estimation, would it further get the city closer to making the transition away from natural gas and fossil fuels?

John Mirsky: In my view, it will. And I think the big debate is how far will it get us? The sustainable energy utility deal will likely have to be grid connected, because there's not going to be enough energy resources that Ann Arbor is going to be able to provide on its own. It can add resiliency through microgrids. But we're still going to need to get power from outside the city. And so, essentially, there's going to have to be some level of redundancy with some other utility providing power from outside the sustainable utility. It could potentially grow to replace DTE as a utility. And there was, as your listeners probably know, discussions that the city would condemn DTE's assets. That would happen through a vote of the people and then would have to purchase those assets and negotiate with the city to purchase those assets. But a sustainable energy utility is, absolutely, in my view, a proper first step.

David Fair: Well, there are a lot of carbon neutrality goals, climate goals, and the city continues to look forward. What are the next steps the Ann Arbor Energy Commission is going to look at in moving electrification in the city further down the road?

John Mirsky: Well, there's a number of things. First of all, there's really a great model that the city has started with the Bryant neighborhood trying to decarbonize that. And then, really key will be to replicate that across all the different neighborhoods and subdivisions across Ann Arbor. Another thing that the Energy Commission has talked about--and we'll talk more about--is district heating methods. So, instead of every home doing electrification and heating on its own, there's the possibility of working in neighborhoods. In fact, the Office of Sustainability and Innovations in Ann Arbor received a grant from the Energy Department to do an engineering study and feasibility study of a district system to supply heat to the Bryant neighborhood. And then, of course, there's a number of different actions that are going to be required simply to convince individuals to do the kinds of things that we all need to do, like I've done with my home. Obviously, this is not a command and control economy. And so, this really requires collective efforts on everyone's part.

David Fair: The most difficult change is behavioral change, and that's what it's going to take.

John Mirsky: Indeed.

David Fair: Thank you so much for the time in the information today, John. I look forward to another conversation.

John Mirsky: Very good. Thank you. David.

David Fair: That is John Mirsky. He is former chair and current member of the Ann Arbor Energy Commission and our guest on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. For more information, visit our website at wemu.org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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