Washington state could lead the nation on building electrification codes

In the unglamorous pages of local and state law books lies one of the most powerful tools for reducing carbon emissions: building codes.

Local governments in Washington state, including Seattle, Tacoma and Shoreline, have already used this powerful tool, changing their building codes to restrict the installation of natural gas in new commercial buildings. Now climate advocates are eyeing a potential victory at the state level. The Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) is considering two code proposals that would require high-efficiency electrical equipment (heat pumps) for space and water heating in new commercial buildings in the Washington Energy Code. Washington State by 2022.

If successful, these proposals will eliminate 8.1 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050, according to the RMI analysis. The emission reductions would be equivalent to taking 1.8 million cars off the road for a year. Despite the gas industry’s efforts to delay this change and further develop the gas system, the SBCC should seize this critical moment to align state building codes with climate science.

The Opportunity: Benefits of the All-Electric Building Code

1. Fewer emissions

The high percentage of renewable energy in Washington’s grid makes going all-electric a no-brainer. A 2020 RMI analysis found that in Seattle, a new all-electric home would reduce carbon emissions by more than 93% compared to a mixed home. The large difference between all-electric and mixed emissions in Washington is primarily due to the fact that the state’s electric grid is already 80% decarbonized and is expected to be 100% carbon-free by 2045.

2. More efficient

In addition to meeting climate goals, heat pumps offer the opportunity for buildings to become more efficient and use less energy overall. Washington state law already requires the SBCC to update the energy code to reduce annual building energy consumption by 70% by 2031 compared to 2006.

The SBCC has calculated that each energy code update (which occurs every three years) must result in a 19% reduction in energy consumption in order to meet the 2031 target. heat are at least two to four times more efficient than gas appliances for space and water heating, and they have the added benefit of being able to run on carbon-free electricity, making them perfect candidates for achieve energy and climate goals.

3. Economical

Despite claims from the gas industry to the contrary, going all-electric can be inexpensive and, in many cases, saves money. A 2019 study (automatic PDF download) found that mid-rise office buildings and small retail stores had no significant incremental cost to going electric. This same study found substantial savings for small hotels going all-electric. Considering the high costs of hooking up new buildings to the gas line, installing gas lines throughout the building, and performing safety tests and combustion precautions, all-electric construction is generally the best. financial decision.

Building electrification is also the most cost-effective approach to decarbonizing the buildings sector. According to the Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy, a report led by the Legislature and supplemented by the Commerce Department:

Decarbonization Modeling’s in-depth analysis…identified a combination of energy efficiency and electrification as the least-cost strategy for meeting state greenhouse gas emission limits for buildings. Consistent with this finding, this chapter recommends policies and actions needed to implement an electrification strategy in Washington buildings.

4. Healthier

Electrifying commercial buildings can also reduce pollution and improve public health. According to a recent Harvard study, burning fossil fuels in commercial buildings caused $110 million in health impacts in 2017. And that’s a conservative estimate, as it only includes impacts on the health of outdoor pollution by fine particles (PM2.5) and its precursors; nor does it include pollution from upstream extraction (fracking and drilling) or indoor air pollution from gas appliances. Poor air quality disproportionately affects low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. The proposed changes to the code would significantly reduce new pollution that would otherwise worsen this health, economic and racial justice problem.

The benefits of heat pumps have generated widespread support for the code proposals among engineers, architects, medical professionals, climate groups, manufacturers and non-profit organizations.

The cost of waiting

Considering the climate, energy efficiency, economic, and public health benefits of heat pumps, it’s clear why advocates have been pushing Washington State to move quickly on building decarbonization. To quantify what short-term action would accomplish, RMI analyzed recent trends in new construction in Washington and assessed the emissions impacts of the heat pump and space heating requirement of the building. water in new commercial buildings in 2022, instead of waiting until 2031, when existing state law has set a goal to build homes and buildings with zero greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

A 2022 commercial electrification code in Washington will reduce 8.1 million tons of CO2 by 2050, according to our analysis. By 2050, these code proposals will reduce total direct emissions from the commercial sector by 14.5%. Due to the cumulative nature of new construction, waiting until 2031 to implement the code’s proposals will result in significantly more pollution, halving the 2050 emissions savings.

When evaluating the cost-benefit analysis for each code proposal, the Washington Office of Financial Management recommends using a social cost of carbon, with a discount rate of 2.5%, to account for societal impacts of greenhouse gas pollution. According to this accounting, the 2022 building code proposals will avoid $900 million in damages by 2050.

Social cost of waiting for heating / RMI

The path to follow

With its 2022 energy code update, Washington can adopt the nation’s most ambitious commercial building code, building on California’s 2021 adoption of the state’s first building code. with high requirements for the electrification of buildings. The public comment period for Washington State’s building code will begin in early 2022, and it’s important that advocates support these code proposals before the SBCC votes on them in the coming months.

If Washington adopts the new building proposals, the Evergreen State will deploy one of the most powerful decarbonization tools it has – and give even more momentum to states using or considering building codes to promote the electrification of buildings.

An updated analysis for the new electrified building economics will be released in early 2022, incorporating new utility rates, cost assumptions and emissions factors.

The calculated health values ​​are based on additional analysis by Jonathan Buonocore, Sc.D, the study’s lead author, and RMI used median estimates from the results of three reduced complexity models used in: Jonathan J Buonocore (Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health) et al., “A Decade of the US Energy Mix in Transition Away from Coal: Historical Reconstruction of Public Health Energy Burden Reductions”, 2021 Circa. Res. Lett. 16 054030, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abe74c.

The RMI emissions analysis for the two heat pump proposals used data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Cambium dataset, the US Energy Information’s 2012 Commercial Building Energy Use Survey Administration (EIA) and EIA data on commercial gas demand.

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