Seattle was doing a pretty good job of reducing its greenhouse gas output...until it wasn’t. From 2008 to 2016, the city’s core greenhouse emissions (those from the waste, transportation, and building sectors) decreased by about 5 percent. But over the next three years those core emissions increased by a little over 1 percent. That may not sound like a lot, especially given Seattle’s population growth (the per capita emissions rate actually dropped), but for a city with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, it’s a notable setback. One of the main culprits, according to the report, was the building sector, which increased 8.3 percent between 2016 and 2018 (the most significant jump in that time frame).
That’s why mayor Jenny Durkan recently announced an update to Seattle Energy Code that aims to electrify future commercial and large multifamily buildings. The change would ban fossil fuels used for space and water heating in favor of electric heating systems, which would run (mostly) on Washington’s abundant hydroelectric power.
According to the Office of Sustainability and Environment, about 10 to 15 percent of large multifamily buildings use fossil fuels for space heating. The number is higher for commercial buildings: about 60 to 70 percent.
Changes to the code won’t officially go into effect until spring of 2021, provided they're approved by Seattle City Council at the end of this year. If that happens, Seattle will add its name to a growing list of cities in the US that have passed legislation to electrify the building sector and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In some cities the ban includes appliances such as gas stoves; this is the case in Berkeley, where the California Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that a ban on gas stoves would harm restaurants that rely on open flames to create some of their dishes.
Seattle’s new code update doesn’t ban gas-powered ranges, but it does require electrical outlets of appropriate size to be installed near any gas appliances in multi-family residential buildings, to allow for a quick transition to electric appliances in the future. (This stipulation does not apply to new commercial construction, so for the time being, new restaurants will still get their little blue fires.)
While an official update to the energy code would be a change for Seattle, the presence of electric buildings isn’t new. Green Canopy, a developer with offices in Seattle and Portland, already offers all-electric town homes in Ballard and Queen Anne.
Naturally, this update to the energy code will come with some opponents, including those in the natural gas business, who last year dropped a million dollars on a PR campaign to “tell a positive story” about natural gas. Historically, natural gas has been promoted as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity, but Seattle City Light (which bills itself as “The Nation's Greenest Utility”) gets 84 percent of its energy from hydropower. Dams come with their own fair share of controversy and environmental impact.
And what about all those propane-powered outdoor heaters that popped up on restaurant patios recently? Changes to the code won’t affect them. Hopefully by next winter we’ll be dining inside anyway.