Washington State Becomes Latest Battleground over Building Gas Bans

By Nick Pipitone

There’s a nationwide battle over building electrification, and property owners are caught in the middle. Washington recently became the first state in the U.S. to mandate electric heat pumps for new commercial and multifamily buildings, doing so through its state energy code. Starting in 2023, many new Washington state commercial buildings and large multifamily apartments will no longer be allowed to use natural gas or other fossil fuels for space heating and some water heating. Builders will instead be required to install electric heat pumps.

The decision is a milestone for building electrification advocates, who have worked tirelessly to restrict fossil fuel consumption in buildings. Washington is targeting its building sector, which was the state’s fastest-growing source of carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015. By 2031, Washington’s new climate laws mean buildings must slash energy consumption by 70 percent, with the goal of zero carbon by 2050.

Natural gas is already effectively banned in dozens of cities and towns in California, Colorado, and Oregon, but Washington is the first to do so statewide. New York City effectively banned natural gas in many new buildings in December. California has adopted a building code change that strongly encourages new buildings to forgo natural gas, though it doesn’t mandate it. On the flip side, at least 20 state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from banning gas.

The fight over gas bans has been contentious. A handful of states this year tried and failed to pass sweeping building gas bans, including New York, which dropped the proposal during state budget talks. Washington state’s ban is less expansive than those enacted by many cities but it has still drawn ire from gas utilities, some property owners, and building trades unions, who predict widescale electrification will drive up costs, threaten the grid, and unfairly block the use of lower-carbon substitutes like hydrogen and biomethane.

The outcome of these gas-ban-battles has vast implications for property owners. New technology is making the switch to electric heat pumps easier for commercial buildings, but some challenges remain. New construction can be more easily electrified, but it’s more complicated in older, existing buildings. Nevertheless, the building electrification push is gaining momentum nationwide, as well as fierce opposition, and will likely spread to more states and cities soon.

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