The Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously approved changes to energy codes that will further clamp down on natural gas use in new commercial and apartment buildings taller than three stories.
The ordinance bans natural gas for space heating in new construction of these buildings, or for use in replacement heating systems in older buildings. It also would prohibit the use of natural gas to heat water in new hotels and large apartment buildings, and take other steps to improve energy conservation that include a greater use of more efficient electric heating and cooling systems.
The energy code changes are part of a broader effort to find ways to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels that drive climate change. Without the code changes, Seattle officials projected the building emissions would have been 12% higher by 2050, when the city government has set a target of being carbon neutral.
In Seattle, and elsewhere around the state, many politicians are rallying around a blueprint for a low-carbon future that involves more electrification of the building and transportation industries, and then finding more ways to produce that power without generating greenhouse gases.
Councilmember Dan Strauss, the lead sponsor, said the changes give Seattle “one of the most forward-thinking energy codes in the country.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, in a statement released in January that detailed the code changes, called electrifying buildings an “important step in the many actions needed to curb climate pollution.”
The energy code amendments will continue to allow commercial buildings and apartments to be constructed with natural gas for cooking. But electrical outlets would be required near stoves so that electric stoves could be installed later.
The new codes also do not cover new construction of houses and town houses, which have energy codes set by the state that now continue to allow natural gas heating.
Natural gas-industry officials have cautioned about switching too much of the energy load to the electrical-generation system, which is undergoing new strains as coal-fired generation declines amid a big expansion of more variable solar and wind power
“On cold winter days like this, natural gas is an essential part of the energy system — for instance, it provides about two-thirds of the energy used by the city of Seattle on peak demand days,” said Janet Kim, a spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy (PSE), who said the company did not take a position on the changes to the Seattle energy codes.
PSE, which delivers natural gas to some 150,000 customers in Seattle, has set a goal of reduce carbon emissions from natural gas sales by 30% in 2030 by substituting alternatives such as gas from landfills. It seeks to go “beyond” no net carbon emissions by 2045, according to Kim.
Seattle has set a target of being carbon neutral by 2050, which would require dramatically lowering greenhouse gas emissions that in 2018 totaled more than 3.1 million metric tons.
A study of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions found that, as of 2018, buildings accounted for nearly a quarter of this pollution, and had increased by 8% compared to 2016. The study indicated that commercial buildings generated more than half of these emissions.
Jessica Finn Coven, director of Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment, called the report, when it was released in December, a “sobering wake-up call for us. We continue to be far away from our goals and have started trending in the wrong direction.”