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Seattle City Council votes to restrict natural gas use in new buildings

Seattle will restrict natural gas use in new multifamily homes and commercial buildings, a move that will require much of the city's future construction to rely on electric power for heating.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Feb. 1 to adopt the gas restrictions, along with a suite of other green building measures, as part of its latest energy code update. The vote advances long-sought efforts to require all-electric construction in Seattle and makes it one of the largest U.S. cities to have adopted electrification requirements.

"With this update, Seattle will now have one of the most forward-thinking energy codes in the country, and we will be setting the example that the rest of the state can follow in the next update," said City Council member Dan Strauss, chair of the Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, which oversaw code adoption.

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New commercial and multifamily buildings in Seattle will have to rely on electric-powered space heating technology such as heat pumps.
Source: Amazon

The code update will prohibit fossil fuel use in electric resistance space heating systems in new commercial real estate and multifamily buildings above three stories. It would also ban fossil fuel use for water heating in multifamily buildings and hotels.

The gas restrictions are a cornerstone of the 2018 Seattle Energy Code, which expanded the code's mission beyond improving energy efficiency to reducing carbon emissions. They are the most significant changes from the 2015 code and are a core part of the city's pledge to be free of climate pollutants by 2030, according to a Council staff memo.

Environmental groups cheered the passage. "By requiring new construction to use clean electricity, Seattle is ensuring that our buildings are part of the climate solution instead of making the climate problem worse," Brittney Bush Bollay, chair of Sierra Club's Seattle group, said in a news release.

Puget Sound Energy Inc., which distributes gas to roughly 150,000 customers in Seattle, acknowledged that customers want cleaner energy. "We have set the goal of being a Beyond Net Zero Carbon company by 2045, which includes the aspirational goal to reach net zero carbon emissions for natural gas sales by 2045 — customer use in homes and businesses — with an interim target of a 30% emissions reduction by 2030," the company said in a statement.

The electrification measures will impact alterations and replacements of existing commercial buildings. They do not apply to smaller homes because state law prohibits cities from amending parts of Washington's energy code that apply to residential development.

Seattle adopts code updates every three years. The updates are based on national and state code revisions, but Seattle typically amends the model codes to include more stringent measures. In turn, Washington often incorporates Seattle's tougher provisions into future state code updates.

The vote came about a month after Gov. Jay Inslee's office unveiled legislation that provided a road map to phasing out gas utility service in Washington. The bill would also give local governments the ability to exceed the state's energy codes for small residential development.

City Council members have sought to prohibit gas use in new buildings through 2019 and 2020 legislation, but those efforts have failed or stalled. The restrictions included in the energy code updates were under development throughout 2020.

The process illustrates how building electrification efforts are evolving beyond straightforward ordinances based on a pioneering gas ban in Berkeley, Calif. On Jan. 26, Denver announced it would also work through its periodic code update to advance building electrification.

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Seattle's space heating provision will go into effect June 1, three months after most of the updates, to offer additional time for stakeholder engagement. Seattle delayed the water heating measures' effective date until Jan. 1, 2022, to give technology more time to hit the market.

City staff limited the water heating provisions to multifamily residences and hotels because their water usage is more predictable than some other types of commercial developments. City Council member Andrew Lewis said he intends to introduce legislation in the coming months that would expand the provision to all commercial buildings.

Council members also said they aim to mitigate the policy's impact on unionized pipefitters. To support trade work, council members said they will consider increasing inspection requirements for pipeline infrastructure and launching a program to ensure decommissioned pipelines were properly taken out of service.