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.