Phase Out Use of Natural Gas
To eliminate emissions from buildings, we need to switch from fossil fuels to electricity for space heating, hot water, and cooking. The City and State have mandated that new commercial and multi-family buildings use electric heat pumps for space and water heating. The State should adopt similar rules for new smaller residential buildings, or at least allow local jurisdictions to make those rules. Further, there should be rules in place to require existing buildings, both commercial and residential to electrify, and programs to make that easier for building owners and occupants. The City has a plan for electrifying its public buildings.
The City does have a plan in place for converting existing residential housing that is heated with oil. These buildings have been prioritized for conversion because the emissions from burning oil are much worse than those from natural gas. The City is paying for low-income homeowners to make the switch, and it has passed a tax on oil that was postponed due to the pandemic but is now scheduled to go into effect in Sept 2023. The proceeds from the tax will be used to help homeowners with the conversion.
The County has adopted a C-PACER program that allows owners of commercial buildings to secure loans for electric conversions.
The City should educate property owners on the benefits of efficiency improvements and electrification, and it should have a list of recommended contractors that owners can contact to get the work done.
There should be rebates, particularly for low-income homeowners, to help bridge the cost between a gas furnace and an electric heat pump.
There are certain intervention points that are particularly good times to electrify. By placing requirements for electrifying at those points, eventually all buildings will be converted. For example, when a building is sold or remodeled, money can be allocated out of the mortgage for a conversion, and typically this is a small part of the total amount. When existing furnaces fail and must be replaced, replacing them with electric will be much cheaper than doing an in-kind replacement that must be converted later.
This is a place where the City does not currently have the power to do this, but must rely on the State to make it possible. In the meantime, if there are conversion requirements for existing buildings, this would send a strong signal to developers that gas appliances are not practical.
The City has a plan to electrify all of its public buildings. This plan requires money to be set aside in the budget every year for this purpose.
The City should enlarge its workforce training programs to insure adequate numbers of electricians and installers.
Advantages of Heat Pumps
Heat pumps can cool as well as heat, so when you get a heat pump you are also getting air conditioning, which is a huge benefit now that summers have more extreme heat waves.
Heat pumps keep a more even temperature.
Heat pumps run on electricity, which is safer than gas. A decaying or malfunctioning 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 modern heat pump is significantly more efficient than a gas furnace.
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.
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.
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.
The upfront cost is more, but the lifetime cost is very similar. In fact, it is far, far cheaper once the costs of health care and climate change are factored in.
Experiences In Other Places
The city of Berkeley, CA commissioned an Existing Buidings Electrification Strategy with assistance from Rocky Mountain Institute. The report is very well done, and broadly applicable to Seattle and King County given the similarities between the two areas.
The Building Electrification Institute is a group of former City building people who are working electrifying buildings in cities.
The BERK report on housing in Seattle has lots of information about our housing inventory. Starting on p. 33 there is info on numbers of units of different housing types, age of units, rental vs owner occupied, assessed value, etc.