OLYMPIA — Heat pumps could soon be mandated in all new residential construction, if a code change proposed by the Washington State Building Code Council goes into effect.
More than 50 people testified on Thursday at a council meeting about the proposed changes to the Washington State Energy Code. Dozens more submitted written testimony both in support and opposing the measure.
Supporters of the proposal say it would be a step toward reducing carbon emissions across the state, which Washington legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee have made a priority in the next decade. The controversial proposal has also drawn criticism from people across the state, especially those in Eastern Washington who say relying solely on heat pumps would be difficult and expensive in the cold winters.
"We can not make housing more attainable while making it more expensive," Jennifer Thomas, of the Spokane Home Builders Association, told the council.
The new code would require that heating of air and water in new single-family dwellings, duplexes and townhouses be done by a heat pump, either gas or electric. There are some exceptions, including for those houses with no more than 1,000 square feet of conditioned floor area and small water heaters with a water storage volume of no greater than 20 gallons.
The state building code council, comprised of 15 members appointed by Inslee, is in the process of updating the state's energy code. Earlier this year, it added restrictions to the use of natural gas heating in new commercial buildings and multifamily homes.
The council will hear public testimony at a number of meetings through October and will vote on adoption of the code changes on Nov. 18.
Those who testified in support of the heat pump proposal said it will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide cleaner air for homeowners. Environmental advocates said burning less fossil fuels is necessary to fight climate change.
Naghmana Sherazi, of the Lands Council based in Spokane, said the natural gas used in Washington's homes is expensive and unhealthy. She pointed to a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that found indoor air quality could be two to five times more polluted than outdoors.
Electrifying homes and buildings would be a low-cost way to continue to live in a healthy and green environment, she told the council.
A number of people who testified in favor, most from Western Washington, said they had switched to heat pumps in recent years and saved money on their heating bill.
Jonathan Kocher at RMI, a nonprofit that works to improve energy practices, said mandating heat pumps would be "a modest and necessary step" toward decarbonizing the building sector.
"We simply cannot continue to add fossil fuels to buildings," he said.
Heat pumps can both heat and cool, which would be cheaper for installation and throughout the home's life, Kocher said.
Those who testified against the proposal disagreed. The Building Industry Association of Washington, whose members testified against the proposal, estimates it could add about $72,210 over a 30-year mortgage compared to using natural gas.
Because Eastern Washington sees 100-degree temperature swings throughout the year, a heat pump is not sufficient to cool and heat during the extreme times, Brian Burrow, CEO of environmental consulting firm Really Clean Energy, told The Spokesman-Review.
Opponents also criticized the council for moving too quickly on the proposal.
Thomas also criticized the council for not doing an independent cost-benefit analysis of the proposal.
"I don't want to be in such a rush to do something at this juncture that we make decisions that ultimately exacerbate our current energy and pollution problems," she said.
Another concern: the state's electrical grid.
Mike Brown, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 77 union based in Spokane, said the electrical grid already is taxed, and there will need to be significant work done to improve the system. It could take years to update transmission lines because of supply chain issues, a labor shortage and lack of real estate.
"When we go to upgrade transmission lines in order to endure this, that's going to be one of the biggest challenges," he said.
Both supporters and opponents of heat pumps acknowledge that there is more work to do to lower carbon emissions than simply mandating heat pumps.
Burrow criticized the mandate because he said it ignores the big picture of reducing carbon emissions. Having heat pumps in every home will only bring "marginal improvement" to reducing emissions.
To really address the emissions, the state needs to focus on building more homes and retrofitting older homes, Burrow said. Most homes in Spokane were built before a lot of efficiency measures were put into place, and the state should focus on helping homeowners fund improvements to better seal their windows, insulate their homes or replace old furnaces. He also said more housing should be built near major employers and business districts to reduce emissions from people commuting to work.
"I feel like they are missing the greater opportunity and the more impactful opportunity," Burrow said.