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Mayor Durkan Announces Ban on Fossil Fuels for Heating in New Construction to Further Electrify Buildings Using Clean Energy

New Energy Code Update will Eliminate Use of Fossil Fuels for Space Heating and Most Water Heating in New Commercial and Large Multi-family Construction to Increase Energy Efficiency and On-Site Renewable Energy

New Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report Indicates 8.3% Increase in Emissions from Building Sector between 2016 and 2018

SEATTLE (December 3, 2020) – Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced new steps to further electrify buildings using clean energy and ban fossil fuels for most building use. By updating its energy code, the City will ban the use of fossil fuels in new commercial and large multi-family construction for space and most water heating in order to cut down on the significant emissions contributed by the building sector. Space and water heating account for most building gas use according to City and national data. These actions come as new City data show building emissions have been steadily increasing in past years.

“We are facing a climate disaster. It is up to Seattle and other cities to make the bold changes necessary to lower our greenhouse gas emissions. As Seattle’s population continues to grow, the scale of our policy response to rising carbon emissions must grow even faster,” said Mayor Durkan. “Business as usual will not get us to a future where all Seattle residents, especially our Black, Indigenous and people of color neighbors who are unfairly burdened by environmental inequities, enjoy a healthy and prosperous future. Electrifying our buildings is an important step in the many actions needed to curb climate pollution.”

After years of notable progress in reducing climate pollution, Seattle’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory shows that Seattle’s overall core greenhouse gas emissions – emissions from our waste, transportation, and building energy sectors – increased 1.1% since the last report. The largest greenhouse gas emissions increase was the buildings sector, which increased 8.3% between 2016 and 2018, a significant jump. Major factors contributing to the increase in building emissions are new buildings with fossil gas space and water heating, colder winters, warmer summers, and a growing population and workforce. Residents and businesses will be able to view additional data and visualizations by visiting the Office of Sustainability and Environment site.

“The homes and offices we build today will be with us for many decades to come – it’s time to ensure they’re helping solve the climate crisis, instead of adding the problem. By updating the city’s building codes to require that new construction uses clean electricity for heat rather than fracked gas, the city can reduce climate pollution and eliminate toxic emissions from gas appliances that harm indoor air quality and public health. When you’re in a hole, the first step is to quit digging – these code changes are an important first step towards a fossil fuel-free Seattle,” said Brittney Bush Bollay, Sierra Club Seattle Group Chair.

The proposed Seattle Energy Code update includes the following key changes for commercial and large multifamily buildings:

  • Eliminates all gas and most electric resistance space heating systems
  • Eliminates gas water heating in large multifamily buildings and hotels
  • Improves building exteriors to improve energy efficiency and comfort
  • Creates more opportunities for solar power
  • Requires electrical infrastructure necessary for future conversion of any gas appliances in multifamily buildings

“This summer, wildfire smoke was an unequivocal alarm to act with urgency for climate resiliency. ‘Smoke season’ has become part of our new climate reality in Seattle and it creates conditions where it is unsafe to be outside,” said Seattle City Council President Lorena Gonzalez. “The impacts of climate change–from out of control wildfires causing smoke to travel across state lines and affect air quality to more powerful storm events–are only going to get more extreme. These climate impacts will be felt first by frontline communities who are often Black, Indigenous and People of Color neighbors and we can no longer afford to delay meaningful action. I’m pleased to see the energy code update advance and I look forward to working with the community and the Mayor on more critical climate action.”

In 2019, Mayor Durkan issued an Executive Order committing the City to new actions that will support the goals of Seattle’s Green New Deal. In addition to requiring all new or substantially altered City of Seattle buildings operate without fossil fuels, City departments work with the Office of Sustainability & Environment to develop a strategy to eliminate fossil fuel use in existing City buildings, improve data collection and sharing on Seattle’s climate emissions and engage stakeholders like the philanthropic community, business community, labor community, non-governmental organizations, health care community, county and state agencies, state legislators, and tribes achieve the goals of the Green New Deal.

“As we build to accommodate a growing city, we must do so in a sustainable manner that addresses the existential threat of climate change,” said Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss. “The data and science are clear – to be leaders in building decarbonization, Seattle must adapt its standards. The buildings we construct today will last fifty years or longer, so it is critical that we adopt solutions now. I look forward to considering this important legislation with my colleagues on the Council.”

The proposed energy code amendments will eliminate most direct carbon emissions from new commercial and multifamily buildings. Requiring these changes at construction is the most economical opportunity to transition to clean electricity. Without the proposed code changes, the City expects that greenhouse gas emissions from buildings to be at least 12% higher by 2050.

“Seattle’s energy code has consistently been recognized as one of the strongest in the nation for energy efficiency,” said Nathan Torgelson, Director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. “We expect these code changes to result in higher performing buildings with reduced energy costs, making this a better overall investment for building owners and a more healthy and comfortable environment for people living and working in these buildings.”

“It is disappointing that Seattle’s greenhouse emissions are continuing to rise, but this isn’t the end of Seattle’s climate story,” said Amy Wheeless, Senior Policy Associate at the NW Energy Coalition and co-chair of Shift Zero. “The City has solutions to reverse this trend, starting with making our new largest buildings high performance and transitioning them away from fossil gas. We look forward to these much needed updates to the City’s energy code being passed and implemented, and we welcome a fuller discussion of how we can reduce pollution from all our buildings in ways that are just and equitable and create opportunities for economic development and re-envision the use of our infrastructure.”

Since 2017, the City has also helped approximately 600 households convert from dirty, inefficient heating oil to clean, energy-efficient heat pumps. The City will convert more households to electric heat with the goal of eliminating heating oil use by 2028.

“For the Labor movement, addressing climate change is about improving workers’ lives today and our children’s lives tomorrow,” said Nicole Grant, MLK Labor Executive Secretary Treasurer. “By updating Seattle’s energy codes, we can change the rules so that big new buildings are built to be more efficient. Thoughtful steps like those proposed to the Seattle energy code are the kinds of changes our society must make to mitigate climate change and protect workers and that’s why King County’s workers voted to support them.” 

The City also requires Building Tune-Ups to help building owners identify ways to reduce energy and water costs. Through tune-ups, building owners find operational efficiencies and low- and no-cost fixes that improve building performance and can reduce building emissions 10-15% on average. Seattle’s largest buildings have completed 450 tune-ups to date, reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the city and saving money on their energy bills.

“We are battling concurrent crises of climate, equity, and housing during an unprecedented pandemic. Instead of retreating at such a time we must not relent in our pursuit to reverse the damage to our planet,” said Marty Kooistra, Executive Director, Housing Development Consortium. This incremental step in code change gives us a chance to achieve our 2030 targets. While this step does come with some sacrifice, it is attainable with ingenuity and resolve, and can provide inspiration for our focus on equity and housing.”

The Seattle Energy Code impacts new construction and substantial alterations of commercial and 4+ story tall multi-family buildings. The proposed code changes are recommended for approval by Seattle’s Construction Codes Advisory Board (CCAB), an advisory body tasked with reviewing changes to technical codes for construction.

“Climate pollution from building energy use is responsible for over one-third of Seattle’s overall climate emissions,” said Jessica Finn Coven, Director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment. “With access to clean energy through Seattle City Light, we should be reevaluating our use of fossil gas wherever possible which is exactly what the City did when updating the energy code.”

The Mayor will transmit legislation to City Council at the end of the year. City Council will discuss the legislation, and with their vote of approval, would allow code updates to become effective in the spring of 2021, along with the full suite of Seattle building code changes in line with the statewide building code updates. For more information about the proposed energy code updates, including the proposed code language, visit the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections energy code web page.