Require electrification of space and water heating at certain intervention points, with a firm deadline by which all buildings must be electrified. These points could include when a property is sold, when it undergoes a major renovation, or when its current heat appliances have reached end of life. Over time, more and more buildings would hit one of these points and be converted. Any buildings left unconverted could be required to convert by 2040.
75% of the GHG emissions from the City’s buildings come from gas heating in both the commercial and residential sector. Therefore eliminating gas water and space gas heating and replacing it with efficient electric heating or heat pumps is a priority.
Electrify at Point of Sale
Electrification at point of sale makes it easier for the homeowner pay for the conversion. It could be priced into the loan that the buyer gets. The buyer could have one year from the sale date to make the conversion, and the City could fine the homeowner if a permit for the conversion has not been filed by that time. The average time a house is owned is 13 years, so this policy should lead to most homes being converted within 13 years.
Electrify on Renovation
This is similar to electrifying at point of sale. It will add to the overall cost of the renovation, but can be added to the loan that is already required for renovation, and any necessary rewiring can be folded in with whatever other electrical work is required.
Electrify at Equipment End of Life
This intervention point makes a lot of intuitive sense. You keep your current furnace until it breaks, and then you replace it an electric heat pump. At no point are you throwing away something with a useful lifespan. But the upfront costs of electrification are higher than for simple replacement of gas. You may have electrical rewiring that will be required, and you may have decisions to make that you would like to have to think through. The additional costs, if you don't have funds for them, may be difficult to manage. A tariff on bill solution, where Seattle City Light fronts you a loan that you repay slowly with your electric bill may help.
Heating equipment usually has about a 15-year lifetime. 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.
Electrify By 2040
We need to have all buildings converted by 2050 at the latest in order to be carbon neutral. Converting them sooner would be better, and would allow the City a little extra leeway on other parts of the transition that are more difficult. If we require electrification at one or more of the intervention points, most buildings will be converted by 2040 anyway. Having a deadline for the remaining buildings is practical to avoid a "long tail" effect where buildings that remain unconverted have large expenses because they are no longer sharing the costs of the common gas infrastructure – piping under streets, etc. – but must pay increased fees for fixing leaks, etc. Establishing a definitive end date lets us end of life the entire set of gas infrastructure so we no longer need to pay for it.
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.
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
See this New York Times article about Bellingham's efforts to pass this exact same policy.
The New Economics of Electrifying Buildings from Rocky Mountain Institute in 2020, contains case study from Seattle.
The surprising economics behind going all-electric from Climate Solutions
The Case For Clean and Safe Buildings from Climate Solutions
Heat Pumps: A Practical Solution for Cold Climates from the Rocky Mountain Institute describes how technological advances have improved heat pump efficiency in cold weather.
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.