Require heat pump on replacement

Starting immediately, when a space or water heating system is replaced within an existing building, it must be replaced with electric heat pump technology, or electric technology of an equivalent or better efficiency. Any natural gas space and water heating systems that haven’t been replaced with electric heat pump or equivalent systems need to be replaced by 2040.

Background

75% of the GHG emissions from city’s buildings come from gas heating in both the commercial and residential sector. In the state 7% of the commercial buildings use gas heating. Therefore eliminating gas water and space gas heating and replacing it with efficient electric heating or heat pumps is a priority.

The cheapest and easiest way to convert to clean energy heating is to switch to an electric heat pump in place of gas, propane or oil when replacing your furnace or hot water heater. Heating equipment usually has about a 15-year lifetime, so if you buy a new gas furnace, you are either committing to 15 years of gas purchases, carrying past the 2030 deadline, or you will have to replace the gas furnace while it is still functioning. If we started now requiring all replacement heating equipment to be electric, then by 2030 we should have reduced the greenhouse gas emissions of buildings in Seattle by almost half, not including emissions from new buildings that get built in the meantime.

The capital cost of a new heat pump is more than a gas furnace, but the cost of running it is lower, so it will pay for itself over time. A modern heat pump is significantly more efficient than a gas furnace. And a heat pump has a number of other benefits, principal among them that it can cool your house as well as heat it, so for no additional cost you get an air conditioner to keep you comfortable in the summer. Electricity is safer than gas, as well. A decaying or ma;functioning furnace can emit carbon monoxide into your home. This is an odorless gas that will kill you if undetected. Also, aging gas infrastructure in our country has been responsible for some horrific explosions in recent years.

A bill that would forbid the installation of new fossil fuel based heating systems would be a huge step forward for reducing GHG, especially in Seattle where electricity is generated without fossil fuels. Another possible point of intervention is when a property is sold, since at that point it is relatively easy to fold the cost of replacement into the loan. A combination of both of these approaches could result in most Seattle properties converting to electric heat by 2030, if we act now.

Unfortunately, the state constitution (Article 8, Section 10) has a limitation on what a publicly owned utility can do to help people make the switch from gas to electricity using rate payer dollars. This means that Seattle City Light cannot offer incentives for people to switch to electric as part of their conservation programs, but Puget Sound Energy can offer incentives on new high efficiency gas furnaces. Recently PSE was paying incentives to get new buildings to choose gas over electricity for heating. Also, PSE has been working to increase the number of gas customers they have to help them pay for the maintenance of their gas infrastructure.

In 2019 the State enacted a new law, HB 1512, which clarifies the law so that public utilities may develop plans around electrification of transport that include subsidies, if the utilities can establish that the new smart load will provide a net benefit to their system. We need a similar law for electrification of buildings. Such a bill was introduced in the 2020 session as HB 2586 but did not pass. In 202, this same concept, under the name Beneficial Electrification, is included in the Healthy Homes and Clean Buildings Act being introduced by Senator Ramel with the support of the governor.

Heat pump outside a Seattle house

There are a number of other places in state law that extend protections to natural gas. Here are some:

  • RCW 80.28.074: Legislative Declaration

    • The legislature declares it is the policy of the state to:

      • (1) Preserve affordable natural gas and electric services to the residents of the state;

      • (2) Maintain and advance the efficiency and availability of natural gas and electric services to the residents of the state of Washington;

      • (3) Ensure that customers pay only reasonable charges for natural gas and electric service;

      • (4) Permit flexible pricing of natural gas and electric services.

  • RCW 43.21F088: State energy strategy principles

    • (d) Reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy sources through improved efficiency and development of cleaner energy sources, such as bioenergy, low-carbon energy sources, and natural gas, and leveraging the indigenous resources of the state for the production of clean energy;

  • RCW 80.40.020: Declaration concerning the public interest

    • The underground storage of natural gas will promote the economic development of the state and provide for more economic distribution of natural gas to the domestic, commercial and industrial consumers of this state, thereby serving the public interest.

These are sometimes collectively referred to as a "right to gas".

Point/Counterpoint

There are a lot of investments now in fossil gas, and many people and corporations, are not onboard with electrification. Here are some objections we've heard about building electrification, together with our responses:

Heat pumps don't work in cold weather. This used to be true in the 80's, but technological advances have improved heat pump efficiency even in very cold weather, and they are now being deployed very successfully nationwide. See this article, Heat Pumps: A Practical Solution for Cold Climates, from RMI.

Heat pumps are more expensive than gas furnaces. It is more expensive, but you get the option of cooling as well as heating, which is critical for getting through smoke events in the summer with the windows closed. Total cost of ownership of a heat pump is less than a gas furnace and air conditioner.

Electricity is not as dependable as gas. It is true that with a gas fireplace you can heat when the electricity is out, but modern gas furnaces will not heat during a power outage because they turn on and off frequently with electrical ignition.

Gas is transitioning to renewable and hydrogen, it should be part of the solution and we can reuse its infrastructure. It is true that you can get renewable gas that is recovered, for example, from decaying garbage, but potential supplies are not enough to power our heating needs. Hydrogen is a possible clean energy, if it is created using clean electricity, but it is only cost effective for industrial applications that can't use other power sources.


We don't have enough capacity in the electrical system for what will be required, and we can't get permits & construction for what is required fast enough. In fact, electrical use in Seattle has gone down, even while the population has expanded, because of efficiency improvements. The cost of renewable electricity has been steadily falling, and although we will need more electricity sources, and more power lines for reliability, this is far cheaper than burning gas and then recovering the carbon back from the atmosphere.


Requiring electrification now discourages investments in gas efficiency. This is true, and I am sure it is very discouraging for people who are working on these efficiency improvements for gas. However, efficiency improvements in our gas infrastructure cannot deliver GHG emission reductions in the scale that is required to meet our climate goals.


Natural gas is clean energy, so there is no need for a transition. Fossil, or "natural" gas is methane, and it releases CO2 into the atmosphere when it is burned. Further, there are leakages all along the path from the source to the final point of use, and methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas. It is 84 times worse to release methane than it is to release a comparable amount of CO2. For all of these reasons, we need to stop using methane, and transition to electricity.


Also, since there will be a big demand for electricians, it will be a great training opportunity for young people to become electrical workers or a career shift opportunity for people in the fossil fuel industry.

Can We Afford It?

For new buildings, it is cheapest to go all-electric, if you are cooling as well as heating, and use an electric heat pump for heating/cooling, a hybrid-electric water heater, and an induction cooktop with an electric oven, because there is a considerable savings from not needing a gas connection, and nothing requires conversion. For existing homes, it is more expensive to switch to electric, but there are many advantages, including cooling and better air filtration for smoke and viruses. For a relatively small additional cost, you get a great deal more health and comfort, plus a tremendous savings on GHG emissions.

From: Rocky Mountain Institute, The New Economics of Electrifying Buildings, on costs for new buildings.

If you need to replace your furnace, but cannot afford the additional price, what can the city do to help bridge the gap? There are some possible policies we could put in place to help. Here are a few:

  • Seattle City Light could do group buys of electric heat pumps and sell them to city residents at cost. By purchasing in bulk City Light should be able to secure a discount of 10-20%.

  • Seattle City Light could buy the heat pump, which the homeowner could pay back over time as part of their electric bill. The loan could be secured by a lien on the property.

  • The city could spread the cost out evenly amongst all homeowners by charging an extra fee as part of property tax, and then offering a one time "heat pump stipend" to homeowners that would cover the additional cost of the heat pump.

  • Seattle City Light currently offers rebates for electric heat pumps, but these don't come close to covering the gap. The rebates could be increased.

  • The city could place a tax on gas appliances

In the Media

Related Efforts

There is a push in Seattle to pass a ban on gas hook-ups. This proposal is different, because it applies to existing buildings that are not undergoing extensive renovations.