Local Governments move away from the use of gas in buildings

Cities and counties across Washington and Oregon move to phase out gas in buildings


From Berkeley, California to Ithaca, New York, cities, counties, and towns across the country are addressing the carbon emissions from their built environments, which primarily derive from the use of fossil fuels. The Pacific Northwest is no different: since 2020, local governments across the region have seen the need to phase out the direct use of natural gas in buildings and have begun to act to drive a transition away from gas through a range of policies and programs. 

Requirements for all-electric new buildings

Local governments in Washington and Oregon are using a variety of policy tools to begin the transition off gas in new buildings. In February 2021, Seattle became the first local jurisdiction in the Northwest to pass an ordinance to require electric heat pumps for space and water heating in new commercial and large multifamily buildings. The ordinance also requires electric receptacles to be installed adjacent to any gas stoves or ovens making future electric appliance retrofits straightforward and cost-effective.

Several other local governments in Washington have followed suit: the city of Shoreline passed a similar policy in December 2021, closely followed by the city of Bellingham in February 2022. King County is expected to pass a similar ordinance in spring 2022. 

Local governments in Oregon are also advancing building electrification goals. Eugene has a two-prong approach: it is currently negotiating with NW Natural to require the utility to pay carbon fees for its ongoing gas service in the city and advancing two city council motions that would require all-electric new construction while creating a roadmap to electrify all existing buildings by 2045. Similarly, the mayor of Milwaukie introduced a city council resolution calling on the city to create a roadmap to electrify all buildings and require all-electric new construction for both the commercial and residential sectors . 

Other major cities and counties are also transitioning off of gas. In 2021, Multnomah County, Oregon committed to electrifying all new and renovated county buildings, and in Washington, Tacoma and Olympia did the same for city-owned buildings. Olympia passed a resolution to explore city-wide electrification for all new and existing buildings. 

In addition, school districts are transitioning away from gas in order to address emissions from operations and improve indoor air quality for their students; Seattle Public Schools committed to operate without fossil fuels by 2040 and an all-electric construction requirement. The Portland Public School Board recently passed an ambitious “Climate Crisis Response” policy, including a commitment to transition its buildings off of natural gas. 

Building performance standards to reduce gas use

In fall 2021, the City of Seattle announced the development of a carbon-based building performance standard to apply to commercial and multifamily buildings over 20,000 square feet. This policy builds on the Clean Buildings Act of 2019, which requires energy efficiency and pollution-reduction standards for buildings in Washington over 50,000 square feet. Seattle’s policy will not only expand the range of sizes for covered buildings, but will go a step further and require that covered buildings are carbon-neutral by 2050, following cities like New York in setting performance standards based on greenhouse gas reduction goals. Seattle’s policy, which is expected to pass this year, would reduce building emissions 27% by 2050.

The City of Portland, as part of a partnership with community-based organizations and communities of color, is also in the process of developing a proposal for building performance standards for existing multifamily and commercial buildings. If passed, its impact would decrease the use of gas in these buildings over time and drive building owners to transition off gas. 

Financing clean buildings

The Pacific Northwest has also seen a variety of innovative financing strategies to advance the transition to clean energy. The Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF), resourced by a tax on large retailers, has raised more than $50 million annually for investments in clean energy homes and jobs, including building electrification and solar power for buildings. In Oregon, the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program allows commercial, industrial, and multi-family property owners in certain jurisdictions to finance energy efficiency and clean energy projects through their property tax payment.

Washington passed a similar policy in 2020 called C-PACER, which allows property owners to access financing for energy efficiency, renewable energy, water conservation, and resiliency improvements for new and existing buildings. Counties that implement C-PACER programs record the loans as a lien on the property so that the assessment remains with the property rather than the building owner. In 2021, Clark, Thurston, Snohomish, Whatcom, and King counties adopted C-PACER ordinances, with Pierce County expected to follow in 2022. Notably, King County’s program disallows fossil-fuel-fired equipment from qualifying for this preferential financing. 

Planning ahead for clean buildings

Other local governments across Washington and Oregon are looking ahead to climate action and have made commitments to greenhouse gas reductions in their Climate Action Plans (CAPs), which often include specific actions around buildings. A round-up of new CAPs across the two states shows the urgency to electrify buildings:

  • Spokane City Council approved a 2021 Sustainability Action Plan that requires reducing carbon emissions 95% by 2050, commits to incentivizing electrification of all new construction, and requires complementary electric circuits for future electric appliances if any new gas appliances are installed in new buildings, making them electric-ready for any future clean energy retrofits.
  • Pierce County, WA’s Sustainability 2030 Plan commits to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 and beginning the transition to electric heating in all buildings.
  • Thurston County, WA’s 2020 Climate Mitigation Plan looks to cut gas consumption by 20% by 2030 and 50% by 2050.
  • The City of Vancouver is expected to pass a CAP in summer 2022 that would commit to carbon neutrality between 2040 and 2050.
  • Portland, OR’s Climate Action Plan directs the city and Multnomah County to reach a 25 percent reduction in emissions from buildings constructed before 2010, and a net zero requirement for all new buildings, by 2030. 
  • In its updated 2020 Climate Action Plan, the City of Eugene, OR is planning to improve upon its Green Building policy for city buildings to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and Energy Use Intensity.
  • In February 2022, Salem, OR passed a robust Climate Action Plan, including an objective of improving energy efficiency and electrification of all buildings.
  • Lane County, OR passed a resolution to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In its draft CAP, Lane County promotes high efficiency heat pumps and heat pump electric water heaters and commits to electrifying county-owned buildings. 

Local governments across the Northwest are stepping up to address a major source of greenhouse gas emissions: gas use in buildings. In just the last two years, some of the biggest local governments across Oregon and Washington have acted to decarbonize the built environment, with a large focus on electrification.  As has happened in California, it is likely that communities across the Pacific Northwest will follow the lead of early adopter local jurisdictions like Spokane, Seattle, and Multnomah County by implementing their own policies in support of a transition off of natural gas.