The statewide debate between green energy initiatives and the home construction industry’s preferences moved to Yakima City Hall last week as the Washington State Building Code Council held a public hearing on proposed rule changes for new home construction.

The proposed transition from natural gas heating to electric-powered heat pumps, and from gas to electric-powered water heating, filled the council chambers Thursday morning and generated dozens of online and written comments.

Among those speaking in person was Coleen Anderson of Yakima, who with several other members of the 350 Yakima Climate Action environmental group wore light blue T-shirts with the words “Heat Pump It Up!” inside an outline of Washington state.

“As a grandmother of five, I’m concerned with their health and safety,” Anderson said, referring to the indoor fumes and climate change impact of natural gas and other fossil fuels. “Our future is electric … and waiting on these changes will cause costly retrofits as our state moves toward decarbonization.”

Ty Jennings, representing the Cascade Natural Gas Co. of Yakima and the Tri-Cities, also attended the meeting and spoke for many in the building industry when he said additional government regulation would make Washington’s lack of new homes and their affordability worse.

Jennings disputed that switching homes to all-electric heating would be better for the environment, noting the industry’s efforts to move toward carbon neutral and/or renewable energy sources.

“Gas has a role to play in lowering greenhouse emissions if we are given an opportunity to do so,” he said. “With these proposals, innovation will be stifled.”

Naches housing development

As Naches housing development grows, construction continues on Apple Loop on Sept. 4, 2019, in Naches, Wash.

Code change details

The two proposals debated Thursday would require new residential buildings to install heat pump space heaters for space heating and heat pump water heaters for domestic hot water heating, said Linda Kent, public affairs director for the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services, which provides administrative support to the SBCC.

“Requiring space heating to be all-electric eliminates a significant source of fossil fuel combustion in buildings, and is generally 2- to 4-times more energy efficient than either fossil fuel or electric resistance heating,” the council stated on its energy code proposal form.

“This proposal aligns with state policy to increase energy efficiency by 70% by 2031,” the form stated. “Additionally, this proposal will significantly reduce emissions and is aligned with state policy to achieve the broader goal of building zero fossil-fuel greenhouse gas emission homes and buildings by the year 2031.”

The council study of the proposal included an economic impact statement that was much debated during the Sept. 29 public hearing. It states:

“Construction costs for heat pump space heaters are often, but not always, higher than for conventional natural gas or electric resistance space heaters. When eliminating the cost of gas infrastructure running to the building and the cost of a separate air conditioner for space cooling, all-electric homes are generally less expensive than mixed fuel homes.”

The economic impact statement of heat pumps for space heating estimated an upfront cost savings of $1.14 per square foot, or $2,725 for an average, 2,390-square-foot home.

It estimated the life cycle cost savings of heat pumps, not including the social cost of carbon, at $3.41 per square foot, for $8,192 per home.

Both of these calculations incorporated the World Bank’s long-term forecasts that indicate an increase of more than 80% in gas prices over the next decade.

Many builders prefer gas

Comments opposing the code changes at the Sept. 29 public hearing echoed statements issued by the natural gas industry when the SBCC code revisions were first announced in April.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America called the proposals an “end run” around the Legislature, which failed to pass out of committee a 2021 gas ban proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The Building Industry Association of Washington had several speakers ask the council to postpone the adoption of the new codes until the housing supply crisis in Washington can first be addressed.

In a written statement, 2022 BIAW President Joseph Irons cited a recent real estate survey showing 80% of Washington families can’t afford to purchase a median-priced home in Washington.

“When we are already facing a housing affordability crisis, we shouldn’t be making it worse by adding more and more costs onto the construction of new homes,” Irons wrote. “As a certified green remodeler and a member of the National Climate Change Task Force, I understand and support the need to address climate change and energy efficiency.

“But at a time when we are ahead of the nation on climate change, but woefully behind on housing, it’s time to bring more balance to the process,” he wrote. “Washington’s homeowners need homes they can afford with a variety of energy sources to prevent the kinds of rolling blackouts we’re seeing in California.”

Andrea Smith, the BIAW’s policy and research manager in government affairs, criticized the SBCC economic impact statement and said a third-party analysis should be done.

“(The impact statement) does not adequately address the increase in housing costs in our state,” Smith said in the Yakima City Council chambers. “If these codes are passed as-is, there will be an increased cost of building new homes and to homeowners during the span of a 30-year loan, as much as $24,000.”

Electric heat, grid at issue

Others wondered if the switch from natural gas to all-electric homes would strain an already taxed electric grid, and the workers who build and repair it.

Christine Reid, political director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 77, said it takes thousands of hours to create a qualified workforce to build, operate and repair electrical power lines and substations.

Her colleague Mike Brown, the union’s assistant business manager and a former lineman, also worried the switch toward electrification would stress the existing grid and the shortage of trained workers.

“This system is going to take a lot of infrastructure rebuild,” Brown said. “We’re not going to compromise our safety and our training to accomplish these means.”

Scott Ongley, president of the Northwest Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, said Washington is a cold-weather state for many months of the year, particularly east of the Cascades. He referred to recent winter heat emergencies in Texas and other states and the risks posed by an electric grid overwhelmed by a cold snap.

“When it gets below 40 degrees, the homeowners flock through our doors for gas supplemental heating units because their heat pumps don’t keep them warm enough,” Ongley added.

Not everyone agreed with Ongley’s assessment of heat pumps. Numerous residents of the Vancouver region testified via Zoom that heat pumps and ductless heat systems work well and are much more efficient than gas-fired furnaces and leaking heat ducts.

“Heat pumps are the most energy-efficient alternative to the conventional air conditioners and furnaces,” Vancouver resident Karen Howe testified via Zoom.

Electric heat and health

While many speakers touted the benefits of reducing fossil fuel use to the environment, several doctors from across the state also mentioned the ill effects of methane gas in the home.

Among them was Dr. Russell Maier, a family physician and associate dean at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Terrace Heights.

He testified via Zoom that gas leaks from stoves and pipelines in people’s homes expose them to at least 21 toxins, which can cause asthma and other breathing problems.

Several members of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility made similar arguments about the health risks of methane gas in homes.

“Inside the home, we have asthma-inducing gas emissions from the use of gas stoves,” said Dr. Annemarie Dooley. “And outside we’ve seen an increase in the amounts and intensity of wildfire smoke, which is increasing due to global warming.”

Contact Joel Donofrio at jdonofrio@yakimaherald.com.

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