Require electrification

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.

Heat pump outside a Seattle house


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.

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.