OLYMPIA, Wash., December 3, 2023—The Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) on November 28, adopted rules restricting the use of natural gas/propane appliances to adhere with lawmaker’s goals of building zero fossil-fuel greenhouse gas emission homes and buildings by the year 2031. The new effective date for all building codes is March 15, 2024.
“Despite hundreds of messages urging the council to reject these restrictive new laws, the Building Code Council moved forward with a de facto ban on natural gas in new homes,” said Greg Lane, Executive Vice President of the Building Industry Association of Washington. “These new rules clearly continue to violate the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which expressly preempts state and local regulations concerning the energy use of many natural gas appliances.”
The State Building Code Council voted on May 24, 2023, to delay the effective date of the 2021 codes for 120 days, which changed the effective date from July 1, 2023, to October 29, 2023. On September 15, 2023, the State Building Code Council agreed on another delay.
The delay came after Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the City of Berkeley’s natural gas ban stating, “alleging that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act preempts a City of Berkeley regulation that prohibits the installation of natural gas piping within newly constructed buildings.”
Originally, SBCC voted 9-5 on November 4, 2022, requiring builders to install heat pumps for space and water heating rather than natural gas furnaces in all new homes, apartments and commercial buildings built after July 1, 2023. However, this led to public outcry from various developers and the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) calling it “an attack on natural gas.”
The council also passed a new wildland urban interface code and adopted a new rule requiring builders to equip all new homes with carports and garages with 40-amp, 208/240-volt branch circuits for electric vehicles.
In a survey by BIAW, builders shared that the heat pump mandate will increase the cost of a newly constructed home by at least $9,200 with an additional $2,400 for homeowners who install both natural gas/propane and electric appliances.
In February of 2023, a coalition of trade associations, union representatives, businesses and homeowners filed a lawsuit challenging the new codes against SBCC.
On September 15, the Council directed SBCC staff to convene two Technical Advisory Groups (TAG) to develop proposals that would modify sections in the commercial and residential energy codes to align with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The Council also approved removing the heat pump mandate with instead an incentive of a higher energy efficient credit value that is applied to the score needed to obtain a building permit.
According to BIAW, instead of five credits for a home between 1,500 to 5,000 square feet, the requirement is now eight credits. A home with a heat pump would be allotted three credits towards the eight needed, whereas a natural gas/propane preference would be allotted zero credits.
“The Prescriptive Pathway (035) removes the heat pump mandate but requires more credits for compliance and indirectly ensures that natural gas for space and water heating is so cost-prohibitive (based on credit allotments) that it would deter usage of natural gas in new homes,” BIAW reports.
After a Public Hearing held on November 28 to the proposed changes to the Washington State Energy Code, the Council voted 9-4 to adopt Option 1 for the Commercial energy code provisions and voted 10-3 to adopt Residential energy code provisions. Any vote not meeting the two-thirds majority is considered a disputed provision.
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, natural gas accounted for 12% of Washington state’s electricity generation, second behind hydroelectric, a renewable, which accounts for 67%. Although the state has no natural gas reserves or production, the Jackson Prairie Storage Facility in Western Washington has a storage capacity of approximately 47 billion cubic feet. Approximately two-thirds of natural gas supplied to Washington comes from Canada through Idaho and more than one-third of all residential households in Washington rely on natural gas for primary heating fuel.
“Moving all newly built homes to electricity will increase demand for electricity with no statewide plan for building more transmission lines,” said 2022 BIAW President Joseph Irons. “An increase in demand for electricity also requires a robust skilled workforce, and the industry is currently struggling to recruit workers. Once recruited, the required training takes years to complete.”
BIAW Vice President Greg Lane urges policymakers to consider scrapping the 2021 code cycle and move straight to the 2024 cycle, already underway at the national level.
“Washington is already on track to meet energy code targets,” Lane said. “The SBCC itself already reports we’re on track to surpass the incremental targets to reduce energy use in buildings by 70% by 2031.”
BIAW will continue to challenge the move by the SBCC with its lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court on February 28.
“These overreaching rules were approved by an unelected body with no legislative authority,” said BIAW General Counsel Jackson Maynard. “This suit has united folks impacted by the costly and illegal rules across traditional political, economic, and geographic boundaries. We are proud to challenge these decisions on behalf of union workers, families seeking affordable housing opportunities, builders, remodelers and more from all over our state.”
Earlier this year, the Washington State Legislature held hearings for large gas companies such as Puget Sound Energy to cease providing natural gas to new customers as of June 30, 2023, and end all natural gas service by 2050 with House Bill 1589. The bill passed the House with a 52-44 vote pretty much along party lines. It passed committees in the Senate and was returned to House Rules Committee for third reading, where it currently awaits further action.
If passed in its current language in the 2024 Legislative Session, Washington households would have to convert all current natural gas appliances to electrical by 2050.