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Electric retrofit proposal could push gas ban boundaries in Wash. city

A city in the Pacific Northwest is poised to consider building electrification measures that would push the envelope in the growing gas ban movement, going beyond the new-building-focused requirements other municipalities have laid out.

Local lawmakers in Bellingham, Wash., will soon debate a requirement for all-electric home heating. The proposal stands out from the current crop of gas bans and building electrification codes because it would apply not just to new buildings and renovations but also to existing structures.

More than two dozen gas bans and electrification codes are advancing in California, Seattle and the Boston area, but the measures do not address greenhouse gas emissions from the existing building stock. Bellingham would start the process of requiring property owners to retrofit their homes and buildings with electric heat pumps or similar equipment from the outset.

The city's Climate Action Plan Task Force revealed the building electrification proposal in a Dec. 2, 2019, report, along with dozens of other measures to accelerate Bellingham's pathway to 100% renewable energy. The task force estimates gas used in buildings will account for 58% of all Bellingham building sector emissions by 2035 if lawmakers do not act.

City Councilman Michael Lilliquist expects local lawmakers to begin formally considering the measures soon. The council will first evaluate which proposals can move forward readily and which will require engagement with state officials and utility regulators, he said. Lawmakers will also devise a public engagement process to weigh each measure's pros and cons and assess public support, he added.

"I don't think anyone is planning on a top-down process. It's taken us a year of work to get to this point," Lilliquist said in an email.

The proposal calls for all-electric heating and appliances, including stovetops and clothes dryers, in new buildings. Property owners could continue using gas for cooking, laundry, fireplaces and other secondary applications in existing buildings but would have to opt for electric systems when they replace their current space and water heater.

The average heating system lasts 20 years, so the task force believes an ordinance implemented in 2020 would mean most buildings would transition to electric by 2040. However, the task force also advised imposing a 2040 deadline for conversion to heat pumps to account for any remaining gas systems. It also recommended regular progress reviews to consider moving the deadline to 2035, should system costs fall faster than anticipated or the city finds new sources to subsidize conversion.

The task force proposal would allow gas for cooking and non-primary heating because the potential for emissions reductions probably would not offset the cost of replacing stoves, clothes dryers and other appliances. Space and water heating account for 91% of gas consumption in U.S. homes, according to the American Gas Association.

Allowing gas for some purposes in existing buildings would leave a market for renewable natural gas, a form of the fuel processed from agriculture, food and other waste sources, the task force said. However, the task force also stressed the city should support full electrification.

The carve-out could also appease the region's home hearth manufacturers, who formed part of a coalition that successfully delayed a vote on Seattle's gas ban. Another pillar of that coalition, the gas industry, plans to spend $1 million on a pro-gas public relations blitz in Washington and Oregon, the Seattle Times recently reported.

Cascade Natural Gas Corp., a subsidiary of Bismarck, N.D.-based MDU Resources Group Inc., distributes gas in Bellingham. The city's electric power provider, Puget Sound Energy Inc., has pushed back against the proposed ban in Seattle, where the company distributes gas.