Bellingham sets strong standards for climate- and health-friendly electric buildings

Bellingham has passed an ordinance requiring new commercial and large residential buildings to use efficient electric heating and hot water systems, moving away from methane gas. | February 7, 2022

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If communities are to stop digging the hold deeper for the climate and our health, there’s one common-sense place to begin: stop constructing new buildings dependent on fossil fuels.

Now, Bellingham is the fifth Washington city to address climate and air pollution from burning methane gas — a fossil fuel that the industry has worked overtime to brand as “natural gas” — in its newly constructed buildings. In fact, gas usage in buildings contributes to over 40 percent of Bellingham’s direct carbon emissions, more than all the cars on all its roads. While the ordinance only applies to space and water heating, a recent peer-reviewed study found that as much as 1.3 percent of the gas used in stoves could be leaking into the atmosphere unburned. Methane heats the climate up to 84 times as much as carbon dioxide, and leakage isn’t limited to pipelines and fracking operations.

From New York to Oregon to California, cities are taking on this huge source of greenhouse gases. Seattle passed rules in February 2021 that require new commercial and large residential buildings (like multifamily condos and apartments) be built all-electric and be highly energy efficient — using technology like heat pumps, which use far less energy than both standard electric and gas heating, to warm and cool the places we live and work. The City of Shoreline did this in December. Olympia and Tacoma have also made commitments to electrify and phase out gas in new buildings.

Plugging into the grid is a key to using less fossil fuels, especially since Washington already has exceptionally clean electric grids that are using more renewables every year.

What’s in Bellingham’s building electrification & efficiency update?

The changes are aimed at space and water heating, which account for the large majority of methane gas burned in buildings, as well as making buildings more energy-efficient and solar-ready. Gas stoves represent a smaller portion of methane gas use, but have alarming health effects due to particulate matter and chemicals released when burning. This is especially true for children living in a home with a gas stove—where kids have a 42 percent higher chance of developing asthma symptoms.

Here’s a short rundown of changes proposed by the ordinance:

  • Better building envelopes for insulation, which affect a building’s efficiency for its whole life. Exterior wall envelope improvements like insulation integrity, component performance and air barriers are included.
  • More efficient mechanical systems and restrictions on electric resistance (like inefficient baseboard heaters) and fossil fuels for space heating. This applies to larger commercial and multifamily buildings. There is some allowance for small, special-purpose electric resistance heating. The code encourages multiple types of heat pump technology — which also provide air conditioning — and requires balanced ventilation and exhaust systems.
  • More efficient water heating, again restricting the use of fossil fuel and electric resistance in favor of heat pump water heaters. There are also improvements in hot water circulation, controls, insulation and storage.
  • More efficient use of electrical power and lighting improvements.
  • Commercial buildings are currently required by state code to meet solar-ready requirements. This proposal requires both low-rise and larger residential buildings to also be solar-ready — ensuring items such as vents and other equipment wouldn’t impede adding solar panels down the road.

Here is a one-pager with a more detailed look at the updates. When it comes to new buildings where we can avoid the cost of adding gas hookups, it’s a no-brainer to “build electric” with technology and equipment that is cheaper to operate and vastly more energy-efficient.

What’s NOT in it?

There are no changes required for existing homes or buildings, and new single-family homes aren’t covered. Since this is part of a phased-in approach to making homes and buildings healthier, safer and cleaner, nobody is required to get rid of their gas appliances.

The next step for Bellingham is to work on equitable, affordable programs that help overcome the upfront cost barriers to phasing out gas in existing buildings to avoid putting an undue burden on homeowners and renters.

Communities in the U.S. are already leading by example — Ithaca, New York recently made a groundbreaking plan to have public-private partnerships provide low-interest loans for people to install clean, electric appliances instead of gas and to make their buildings save energy overall. This also allows homeowners and renters to reap the benefits of utility bill savings immediately, saving thousands of dollars in the long run, all while eliminating the sources of indoor air pollution.

Join us in thanking the Bellingham City Council for passing these forward-thinking building codes to make the spaces we spend so much time in healthier, safer and better for the climate.

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