Washington adopts new rules to phase out fossil fuels in new construction


It will soon become nearly impossible to install fossil-fueled appliances to heat new homes and businesses in Washington.

Under building code amendments adopted Tuesday, builders would need to match the energy efficiency of heat pumps in order to install gas in new commercial and residential buildings. The new requirements could go into effect as soon as March 15, barring any additional legal challenges.

Washington pressed pause on its original heat pump mandate earlier this year after a federal court overturned Berkeley, California's ban on gas in new buildings and opponents filed similar challenges in Washington.

This week the state Building Code Council approved a watered-down version of its original heat pump mandate. Rather than outright  requiring electric heat pumps, it would make it more cumbersome and expensive for builders to meet energy efficiency targets without installing heat pumps.

The codes will require new homes and buildings to meet the same total energy performance as those built with electric heat pumps while allowing builders flexibility to choose appliances. Basically, if builders choose gas appliances, they will need to make up the efficiency losses elsewhere in the construction.

Heat pumps today can put out three to four times as much energy in the form of heat as the amount of energy they consume in electricity.

The Washington state Energy Strategy, published by the state Commerce Department,  recommended that buildings, which account for 23% of the state's emissions,  shift from fossil fuels to electric appliances, with a focus on efficiency.

State lawmakers adopted a target of slashing energy consumption in new construction by 70% by 2031. And by 2050, buildings should not be producing greenhouse gas emissions.

"We're encouraged by this news," a spokesperson for the governor's office said. "The council did a good job working to comply with the court's decision. It still takes the necessary steps to improve energy efficiency and decarbonize one of our most emissions intensive sectors."

While the council believes the new amendment meets the letter of the law, gas utilities that filed previous legal challenges, such as Cascade Natural Gas, Northwest Natural, Avista and trade associations, argue the new rule is impossible to comply with and violates federal preemption rules.

"The Council has merely 'gamed' the energy efficiency crediting tables to impose a de facto ban on heating appliances fueled by natural gas or propane," Gregory Johnson, a senior electrical engineer for Avista, wrote to the Building Code Council.

Similarly, the Building Industry Association of Washington, which challenged the earlier version of the codes, says the latest may not comply with the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

"I appreciate that the gas industry — their business model is under threat right now as we electrify everything," said Jonny Kocher, a manager of Rocky Mountain Institute's Carbon Free Buildings program who helped draft the amendment. "... This is kind of a saber-rattling approach."

A federal judge in July denied a request from the gas industry to ditch the new state building code requirements that called for the installation of heat pumps in new construction.

In a ruling from the bench, Chief Judge Stanley Bastian of the U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington said he did not want to delay an update to statewide building codes and cause a "chilling effect" on other agencies trying to address climate change.

The state Building Code Council has 15 members appointed by the governor's office. The council updates all building codes every three years.