This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan.

Like many buildings in this part of rural northern Michigan, the Tsuber Auto garage in the Village of Mesick is heated with propane, delivered by truck once or twice a month to the tank outside. 

On a recent morning, owner Vyacheslav Tsuber was sitting behind the counter of a small, brightly lit lobby with his son — one of eight kids. As Tsuber walked to the cavernous shop in the back, the smell of drip coffee mixed with rubber and grease. 

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

On average, he said, it costs anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a year to heat the shop. But that could soon change. DTE Gas Company, a subsidiary of Michigan’s largest utility, is expanding its natural gas network to the area, giving over 1,000 homes and businesses the choice to switch to natural gas. 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Natural gas is more climate-friendly than the propane and wood used in much of the region, according to DTE. The switch could also slash heating bills. 

“If the cost of natural gas is going to be nearly half of what propane costs, for a lot of people, this is an easy decision,” Tsuber said. 

The choice many see is between propane and natural gas, because that’s how DTE presented the project. What’s left out of that equation, say climate advocates, is a third option: electrification. Instead of locking in fossil fuels for decades to come — and reducing the incentive for people to electrify their homes — why not make it easier to switch to electric heating instead? 

A white man with a salt-and-pepper beard stands in his automative shop next to a tall red cabinet of drawers holding tools.
Vyacheslav Tsuber owns Tsuber Auto garage in Mesick, Michigan. He is thinking of heating his garage with natural gas to save money, but also said he has more homework to do to make a good environmental decision. Izzy Ross / Grist

Supporters of natural gas see it as a bridge fuel, something consumers can use on their way to a sustainable future.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But critics say we don’t have that kind of time.

As Sam Stolper, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Sustainability puts it: “We have really ambitious [climate] goals for good reason. They’re needs, not just goals, and we’re not going to hit them if we keep making decisions to switch to natural gas … instead of going straight to electrification.”

To him, the solution is clear. “It’s on governments to make it so that households are able to choose that option,” he said. 

Natural gas is a fossil fuel made up mostly of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is much more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

There have been major efforts to encourage more home electrification. The federal Inflation Reduction Act is providing tax credits and rebates for technologies like heat pumps.  

Still, getting off natural gas can be lengthy, pricey, and complicated, as Grist’s own reporters have experienced, requiring a deep dive into federal tax incentives and equipment upgrades.

The way homes are heated in the United States varies by region. In Michigan, natural gas is the primary heat source for more than three-quarters of households and the leading source of electricity. It also has the most natural gas storage of any state. That makes natural gas an especially attractive option for utilities since they can buy it from elsewhere during the summer, store it, and sell it for less in the winter. To make electricity more affordable, utilities’ rates would have to change substantially, said Parth Vaishnav, an assistant professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan.

A large tubular tank with Propane painted on it in large letters.
A propane tank in Mesick, Michigan, where residents now have the option to move from propane to natural gas to heat their homes and businesses. Izzy Ross / Grist

“Relative to natural gas, electricity is really expensive in Michigan — more expensive than it is in many other states,” he said. “If you go from natural gas to a heat pump, it would raise almost everybody’s bills by quite a lot, and the problem would be worse for people on low incomes than for people on high incomes.”

Financial considerations and logistical legwork can make the prospect of adopting cleaner heating daunting. For some, it’s not really an option at all. 

“Not everyone, unfortunately, has the luxury to worry about a lot of environmental concerns,” said Conor Harrison, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina.

“Sometimes we are too quick to think about individual choices,” he said. “Changing a heating system in a house, like that is a major, major project. And it’s one that people typically don’t do until they have to.”

Then there are factors like the strength of the power grid and the resilience of its infrastructure, which experts say could complicate electrification

“Of course, you have freedom to choose how you heat your home, but frankly, only up to a point,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist with Columbia Business School. “If the electric grid isn’t capable of sending more power to your home, then you’re up a creek when it comes to installing a heat pump.”

Local initiatives have proved key to encouraging communities to embrace renewable energy in some cases. In others, municipal governments have moved to ban natural gas altogether

But sometimes it’s not just about choosing the cleanest option. Places like Mesick and Buckley have worked for years to make natural gas a reality, eyeing economic benefits for the community. 

“Propane was good, but natural gas is so much cheaper. That’s why it becomes, really, the frontrunner,” said Takis Pifer, the mayor of Buckley.

Pifer, who previously worked as an analyst for DTE, acknowledged that other energy systems can work — he had a heat pump installed in his home — but said it made sense to give consumers more choices.

There’s also hope that the addition of natural gas will give a boost to businesses in the area. 

“It’s exciting. It’s a good thing for town,” said Debbie Stanton, who has worked as Mesick’s village clerk for over two decades. 

Stanton isn’t against renewable energy; she got a grant to install a heat pump for the village office. But she said natural gas will create additional options for people living there; in the past, businesses looking to set up shop in Mesick opted to go to places that had a gas hookup. And with rising prices, saving on heating bills could help residents. 

“I raised three kids, and I spend more on groceries right now for the two of us than I did when I had my three kids at home,” she said. “You listen to people that have families, they’re spending $500 a week on groceries. So there’s not a lot of money left over for other things, and maybe being absolutely green isn’t their priority at this time.”

Oil and gas companies have long promoted natural gas as a clean energy source, despite knowing that it was a major contributor to climate change

Despite Michigan’s goal of economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050 and calls for reducing reliance on fossil fuels, it has by no means shunned natural gas.

Last year, the state awarded $50 million in grants for “low-carbon energy infrastructure” — much of which went to expanding biogas and natural gas. As Planet Detroit reported at the time, utility and gas industry lobbyists donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to legislators who wrote and sponsored the bills behind the funding

DTE received $7.28 million as part of that, making the roughly $17 million gas main extension project possible, said Scotty Kehoe, the utility’s director of gas operations for Greater Michigan.

“Natural gas is one of those ways that we’re reducing our carbon footprint,” he said. “While natural gas might not be a renewable energy source, it is a very clean energy source.”

Despite utilities continuing to push forward with natural gas, the energy landscape is changing. 

After a major methane leak at a Pennsylvania storage reservoir in 2022, the federal government began rolling out new rules for gas storage facilities, along with plans to fine companies for leaking methane.

More homeowners are buying heat pumps than gas boilers. Federal incentives for heat pumps and energy-efficiency measures may help reduce the demand for natural gas heating. 

Some places, like a remote community in Washington state, have created a cooperative finance model to fund heat pump installations. 

And Michigan is harnessing federal incentives to start offering home-energy rebates for efficiency upgrades and electrification this fall — right around the time DTE is planning to finish its natural gas project. 

Back at the auto shop in Mesick, mechanic Vyacheslav Tsuber is considering all this. Some of his heating equipment will have to be replaced in the next few years, and natural gas would be convenient. Still, he said, he has more homework to do. 

“We are very conscious to make sure that our decisions [are] environmentally friendly,” he said, “Or [are] at least better than what we use right now.”