Question: What is the fastest-growing source of climate pollution in Washington? The surprising answer is, buildings. Our homes and office buildings, stores, gyms, restaurants, and bars are now responsible for more than one-quarter of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions—second only to transportation. In fact, carbon pollution from energy use in buildings, which consists almost entirely of natural gas used for heating and running appliances, is up 50 percent since 1990.
If Washington is to achieve its goal of a net-zero carbon economy, the state must dramatically curtail emissions from buildings. But how to do that?
The answer is simple but not necessarily straightforward: replace gas with clean electricity in virtually all buildings. “Building electrification”—transitioning homes and offices and stores from using fossil fuels to clean energy—is a key part of Washington’s new 2021 Energy Strategy, which outlines the state’s decarbonization plans. It is also the lowest-cost option in the state’s strategy to realizing Washington’s net-zero carbon goal.
Building electrification makes sense everywhere but it is especially a no-brainer in the Evergreen State, which boasts electricity that is among the cleanest and cheapest in the country. That’s good news for meeting the state’s climate goals (by 2045 Washington’s power will be entirely emissions-free) because it means that buildings in the state can economically eliminate carbon from burning gas by converting to electric appliances for heating, water heating, and cooking. The environmental benefits are also surprisingly big: just replacing a gas furnace with an electric heat pump can reduce a household’s climate footprint by more than 50 percent—the equivalent of giving up car ownership.
To explain why so many climate advocates are focused on buildings these days and how Washington can achieve full building electrification in the near future, this article provides a brief overview of the case against gas and a look at the strides Washington is making toward cleaner buildings.
The case against gas in our buildings
Although thousands of buildings in Washington are powered by gas, it is increasingly clear that the fuel’s three negative aspects—climate, health, and cost—pose a structural challenge to the future of the gas industry.
Gas in buildings is harmful to the climate. For decades, the industry promoted natural gas as a clean fuel, but that’s true only in a very limited sense. Yes, gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels like coal and oil, but the net climate impact is not much different once the drilling, fracking, pipeline transportation, and processing are factored in. Further, the entire gas supply chain leaks like a sieve, sending millions of tons of uncombusted methane—a super-potent greenhouse gas much worse than carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere. Counting both “upstream” emissions from methane leaks and those from burning gas to power a building makes the “clean fuel” branding a lie. Gas emissions are nearly as bad as that of any other fossil fuel.
Gas in buildings is harmful to your health. There’s another important sense in which natural gas isn’t clean: when it’s burned inside buildings for cooking or heating, it worsens indoor air quality. Recent studies have exposed just how dangerous gas appliances are. Homes with gas stoves have 50 to 400 percent higher nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in their indoor air than do homes with electric stoves. An April 2020 UCLA study found that one hour of cooking on a gas stove produces NO2 levels that would be illegal if found outdoors. Nitrogen dioxide is bad for our respiratory systems and can aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma. These impacts have likely worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as people spend more time in their homes and more time cooking inside.
Gas in buildings is harmful to your wallet. If climate protection and clean air are not enough to convince consumers that electrification is the right choice, perhaps the price will. A recently released cost analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) finds that all-electric homes are cheaper to build and operate than homes powered by fossil fuels. According to RMI’s study of seven US cities (including Seattle), all-electric homes save thousands of dollars and tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a 15-year time horizon when compared to mixed-fuel homes that use gas for space heating, water heating, and cooking.
As the truth about gas becomes more widely understood, the industry’s prospects are dimming. Some cities have gone so far as to contemplate an outright ban on new gas hookups, thereby forcing new buildings to go all electric. Both Seattle and Bellingham have formally discussed the idea while cities in California and the Northeast have begun banning them, at least for some types of buildings.
The path to electrifying our buildings
Less radical than a ban (but probably more practical) is a slew of new state and local regulatory efforts aimed at cleaning up the energy systems in our buildings. These approaches would strengthen and expand energy codes and standards, maximizing energy efficiency and electrification in existing buildings, and fund electrification programs.
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One of the best strategies for pushing gas out of buildings in Washington is beefing up the state energy code that governs design standards for new buildings and sets rules for substantial alterations to existing buildings. Updated every three years, the state energy code is without question the most effective way to improve buildings’ energy performance. The newest version, effective February 2021, targets gas. Although it does not prohibit gas outright, it permits builders to install gas appliances in new homes only if the homes themselves meet stringent energy performance criteria. That requirement is likely to create higher upfront costs for builders, which would encourage some to choose clean electricity instead.
Local governments are also moving ahead. One of the brightest spots for building electrification is Seattle, Washington’s hottest real estate market. In Washington, local governments are permitted to write stronger energy codes beyond the state’s baseline code for commercial buildings like offices and stores. Seattle has done that in the past and is poised to do so again in a new proposed code that will set a high watermark by eliminating most fossil fuel uses for heating in favor of cleaner, more efficient technologies. It will also prioritize high-efficiency building envelopes (like walls and windows) to minimize heat loss while eliminating the most inefficient electric heating (like resistance space heating and water heating), which will help conserve Seattle’s power supply.
The Seattle City Council is set to adopt the new code in February and have it go into force in the spring. Meanwhile, other local governments, including Bellingham and King County, are considering similar “stretch” energy codes, and Governor Jay Inslee is putting wind into the sails of these efforts. In December Inslee announced a climate policy package for the 2021-2023 biennium that would give local governments the ability to strengthen residential energy codes. His legislation would also eliminate fossil fuels for space and water heating in all new buildings by 2030.
Finally, Washington is poised to fund electrification. The 2021 Energy Strategy recommends the creation of a high-efficiency electrification program, funded by a “public benefits” charge or a tax on emissions. Monies raised through this program would flow to residents who install high-efficiency electric appliances and convert from gas to electric. Such a program would fix some important flaws in the current energy-efficiency programs run by utilities because it would allow the funds to be used for converting buildings from gas to electric—a practice that is somewhat constrained by regulations today.
Fixing those regulations is also on the menu. Advocates supported legislation in 2020 to implement a gas-to-electric switching program called “beneficial electrification,” but the bill did not pass. However, Inslee has folded the beneficial electrification legislation into his climate policy package for reconsideration in 2021 as HB 1084.
Washington’s buildings—those that are standing today and those that will be built in the future—represent a growing chunk of the state’s carbon problem. There is no path to decarbonization that permits a continued dependence on natural gas appliances, but there is plenty of reason for optimism that clean electricity will deliver cost savings and air quality improvements alongside climate responsibility.
No back up if electricity goes out and it does in the Northwest
@pennyHowe. You cannot run your gas furnace or boiler when the power goes out as well. Backup power is required in both cases, and best is battery storage fed by solar, rather than a fossil generator.
There are large swaths of the state (Whidbey Island where I live is one) where PSE grid electric power is unreliable and typically goes out multiple times each year during the cold season, sometimes for extended periods of 1+ day. We’re working towards an electric heat pump heating system, but we’ll have to keep the propane heat stove, at least as a backup. That also means keeping the propane tank.
As for cooking, electric stoves suck, to to mention are unreliable with PSE intermittent electricity. Unless new version are orders of magnitude better than the old. In which case we’ll switch when they show up on craigslist and we can afford one. I guess we’ll rely on my old white gas backpacking stove the the power goes out. Assuming that is still available. Or its the fire pit and three rocks.
Partner with the (evil or not) gas utilities to convert their systems to moving water (or refrigerant) to entire neighborhoods for ground source heat pumps. https://heetma.org/feasibility-study/ It takes much less energy to move water than it does to provide heat directly.
I hope the gas utilities in the PNW already see the writing on the wall, and will be more inclined to partner than to fight. It’s already happening on the east coast. Utilities already have easements in the right of way, they know plumbing, and some of their customers are begging for this. I know I am.
Hadn’t heard of that! Thanks for the link.
If you got rid of all the pets in the U. S. it would be the same as removing 13 million cars and their carbon pollution for one year. There’s so much we can do to lower carbon.
Electrification may be better for the climate but it is most certainly not cheaper. I have used both and currently have an electric heat pump and my electric bills are much higher than they ever were with gas heat.
We switched to a heat pump recently, too. I noticed our bills are higher in the summer because we couldn’t air condition before. 😉 We also switched to green electricity at the same time, which is of course the goal behind reducing natural gas usage, which makes our bills even higher than with gas—although a tax on carbon would certainly change that equation.
We also need to incentivize existing condominium buildings to convert to electric. I live in a condominium in Seattle. It is written into our governing documents that each condo in the building pays a share of the common gas bill, because there is only one gas meter for the building. If I were to swap out my gas stove for electric, I would still be required to pay for my portion of the common gas bill. We have a gas unit on the roof of the building to heat the hallways. It could easily be swapped out for electric, but it would be a challenge to get the necessary percentage of owners to approve if gas is cheaper than electric. I wonder if solar panels could bring that cost down in the long run?
My electric heat pump is only useful at 40 degrees or above and I prefer 45 even 50 degrees. The gas furnace takes over at lower temperatures and is just warmer and the house is more comfortable. I’ve also had an electric hot water heater and it doesn’t compare with a gas hot water heater. We need to see better solutions before taking on the expense of converting existing systems. I’d love to make the conversion but can’t justify it yet.
I feel like the heat pump keeps the house at a more even temperature, but I also switch to my gas furnace backup below 40°F. Usually that’s only needed first thing in the morning, but it sure makes the ground floor nice and toasty! 🙂
The water heater is the one that I’m not sure of. Seattle groundwater is blissfully cold, but the electric tankless heaters I’ve seen would require two in a row to raise the temperature above warm, and resistance heat seems less efficient. Not sure how to improve that.
We’ve had a ductless heat pump since 2010. We love it! Efficient, quiet and dependable. We also have electric range and water heater. That is what I grew up with. I had a gas range once in my life and found it dangerous. The stickler is when the power goes out. We still have our propane heating stove as a backup. Solar charged batteries are not practical because of 100 year old Douglas Firs to the south west of our house shading our house for a big part of the day. We love the trees and they are not on our property in any case.
I recently switched from a gas furnace to a heat pump. But, I haven’t had a full month’s billing yet to see the impact on my wallet. But, I can say that it worked just fine with outside temperatures as low as 30 degrees, heats the home over evenly than the gas furnace did, and is much quieter. The quality of the heat pump makes a big difference here.
Another benefit of a heat pump is that you get A/C for free. If you’re looking to install an air conditioner anyway, you can most likely replace your furnace with a heat pump at the same time at very little, if any, additional cost.
Since there are two authors listed on this article, I am not sure who to direct this at, but there are a number of issues that have been conveniently ignored in this article. First, while the NW is indeed blessed with hydroelectric power, this represents only about 60% of the state’s energy generation with remainder coming from other sources including natural gas. To convert buildings to electric power, the power has to come from somewhere, and right now that means fossil fuel power plants. Anyone who didn’t sleep through 5th grade science knows that energy conversion from one form to another results in an inherent inefficiency. So if the goal is to reduce the emissions from fossil fuel, using natural gas at the source where the equipment is 98% efficient is far more in keeping with that goal than trying to generate power by burning fuel to create the electricity. Secondly, the electric infrastructure doesn’t exist to power all of these buildings and switch over to electric from gas. This is straight from BPA and local utilities. The average office building is going to see as much as 1000 amp increase in power consumption by abandoning gas for electricity. The transformers, power lines serving buildings, and other substations are simply not ready for this.
Additionally, in concert with the increase of this electric load, the state is actively pursuing shutting down power plants in the NW. The coal fired plant in Boardman Oregon is already shut down, and the Centralia plant has partially shut down now with full decommissioning by 2025. So, increase the load and decrease the power availability… anyone see a problem brewing?
Just to put icing on the cake, we are also concurrently adding electric vehicles to this load, which means that the evil gasoline and diesel engines will no longer be providing power to the cars and trucks running up and down the road…. even more load on the already overloaded grid… awesome.
Lastly, when you are as old as I am, you remember when everyone used electricity to power their buildings and homes. It got too expensive to operate and with more and more people moving into the area, the cost of expanding the system was too high which is why everyone moved to natural gas.
Oh yes, and before you ask, I know about solar and wind power… it’s a drop in the bucket folks for what is needed currently, let alone in the future. There’s also an issue with the peak demand vs. storage of those dynamic sources.
But what the heck do I know?… I am only a licensed engineer in the states of Washington and Oregon. You should probably do like the politicians in power and ignore me and my ilk since as an engineer I don’t know what I’m talking about. That certainly worked out well for NASA when they ignored their engineers cautioning about not launching the Space Shuttle Challenger during cold weather. What do you get when you mix politics with science? Politics.. and politics wants electric power science be dammed, so there you go.
Transforming our power sector from thermal generation to clean, non-emitting sources like wind and solar is doable even with all of the new electrical loads imagined, according to engineering research and analysis focused on this exact question. Here are a couple resources:
Pacific Northwest Low Carbon Scenario Analysis-E3 research
Within Reach (Climate Solutions paper)
And yes, transforming our entire economy to a clean economy (e.g. electrifying our transportation and buildings) is also doable according to the research that anchored the recently released 2021 Washington State Energy Strategy. As a society, we have to act fast and think big–to challenge the status quo–if we are going to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
We have a ways to go. You are correct that Washington still has a share of thermal power but a 2019 state law, the Clean Energy Transformation Act, is changing this. By 2030, Washington’s power will be net zero and by 2045 it will be entirely non-emitting. In the currently underway legislative session, the Washington legislature is considering new laws that will slow the growth of fossil fuels in buildings and transportation. Policymakers are needed to speed up action, focus attention on the most pressing problems and put up some guardrails–these things likely won’t happen organically–you can look to other states where this type of policy is absent for evidence.
Building a clean economy will be a monumental undertaking and we absolutely need engineers to imagine and design the solutions to realize this objective. We have to make investments in new infrastructure and new technologies to make this possible. Getting there isn’t cost-free but the alternative, a climate that spirals out of control, comes with a far higher price tag and sacrifice.
Laura, I admire your enthusiasm, but my training has me grounded in reality based concepts that don’t allow me to ignore the basics. Yes the costs are going to be staggering and I suspect that the costs are ignoring the actual costs to the private sector which are going to require figuring out things like “how do I get multiple 4″ conduits through my existing building from the basement to power the new rooftop equipment along with the required upgrades to the main distribution panels and associated conductors?” Energy costs in Washington are currently the lowest in the nation. That will not remain true with this overly aggressive plan. The link below has an article about the current Texas situation and the “Staggering price increases across the state” for power. Washingtonians will need to be bracing for an increase from $.10/kWh to somewhere between $.30 to $.50/kWh. That’s going to force some of our lower income citizens to make very difficult choices each month on where to spend their limited funds.
Texas Governor calls for investigation</a
The reports you identified are good information and I will certainly read them (all 500+ pages), however I prefer to crunch my own numbers as opposed to rely on reports generated by others that may or may not reflect reality due to funding tainting. Scanning the reports, I don't see any links to raw data, so I will do my own due diligence. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Washington is currently 32nd in the US for metric tonnes of CO2 emissions from natural gas. The only states better than us are states with large populations and no area (Washington DC, which technically isn't a state), or large area and low populations such as Wyoming. So the problem, we are trying to solve is minor in comparison to states such as Pennsylvania where 54.1% of the electric generation is provided by natural gas as opposed to Washington where natural gas represents 16.3% of our electric generation. PA emits 215 metric tons of CO2 emissions vs. WA which emits 78 tons, so I disagree with the premise that the urgency requires that we saw off the proverbial limb we are sitting on (the limb being natural gas) by 2030. The concept of abandoning fossil fuels is arguably a worthwhile and achievable goal, however the emergent need (in Washington at least) in my humble opinion is being over emphasized. Get the renewable energy sector developed and connected to the grid, and then consider decommissioning the fossil fuel fired energy appliances and power plants; not the other way around. To do otherwise is putting the cart a football field length ahead of the horse. This is exactly what has led to the current situation in Texas where my AutoCad operator works in San Antonio. They have been axing fossil fuel plants and building wind turbines like crazy and in that order. Below is the email I got from him yesterday:
"We got 4” of snow, the city shut down and then we were without power for 24 hours. Overnight it was down to 9 degrees outside and inside the house we were down to 46. I was able to use a rake, broom and hoe to make a path to the car this morning to search for something open that had coffee." As I write this, he is currently without power and the estimate is another 4 hours before it comes back on.
Why on earth would you want to create this scenario here in Washington where temperature dips are far more common than in Texas? I am assuming that you wouldn't, but energy decisions driven by overly euphemistic enthusiasm can easily put us in the same scenario painted by my Texas based CAD operator. Given our current emissions output, I just don't see the need to make these types of sacrificial decisions driven by an accelerated time table… Unless of course, the politics is driving the decisions and then we come full circle back to my original message.
Sorry; I obviously muffed up the link to the NPR article above; I am obviously not as skilled in web page inserts as I could be.
I would like to see more about efficient electric water heaters. I’ve seen induction cooktops and they’re way better than electric, but way more expensive.
Look up heat pump water heaters. They use about 70% less energy than regular electric water heaters.
Natural Gas is clean and efficient heat. Most furnaces are 90 plus percent efficient. Much more than any Power Plant will be. Solar Panel create toxic waste being made and disposed of the same with batteries. Wind Mills are bird killed and mechanical problems. So stay with Natural Gas for now.
Furnaces are 90% efficient and heat pumps are 300% efficient…