Seattle Gets Most Fossil Fuels Out of New Large Buildings

Seattle’s City Council just voted unanimously to pass strong updates to the city’s building energy code that will significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels in new buildings.

Rooftop solar panels on apartment buildings in West Seattle, Washington.
Rooftop solar panels on apartment buildings in West Seattle, Washington.
Credit: Mark Hatfield/iStock

Seattle’s City Council just voted unanimously to pass strong updates to the city’s building energy code that will significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels in new buildings. The policy will go quickly into effect in March 2021, with some provisions taking effect over the course of the year. Some of those provisions, such as the requirement for efficient electric space heating, will be implemented sooner than originally proposed—now June 2021—thanks to the community speaking up in support of quick action.

Seattle’s newly updated Commercial Energy Code applies to new commercial and large residential buildings—multifamily condo and apartments as well as office buildings. In Washington, the State has code authority over smaller residential buildings, but the City can—and has chosen to—go farther than the State’s requirements for these large buildings.

The new code ends the use of fossil gas for space heating in these buildings (and water heating in hotels and multifamily buildings), requiring these two largest uses of energy in buildings to be all-electric. The code still allows gas cooking but requires electric-readiness, so appliances can be swapped out to use cleaner energy easily. Thanks to community demand, city leaders also committed to expanding the all-electric water heating requirement in a future bill as well.

Energy codes matter

Energy codes are a key tool to reduce emissions, employed by fellow Climate Challenge cities from San Jose to Honolulu. The codes guide how newly constructed buildings use energy, with technical guidelines for space heating, water heating, windows, walls, lighting, and more.

This energy used in buildings is the source of one-third of carbon emissions in Seattle. Of those emissions, three-quarters come from fossil (aka “natural”) gas.

Seattle is a fast-growing city that needs more new buildings, and as more new buildings go up using gas, and more heating is needed in a changing climate, according to the City’s most recent greenhouse gas emissions report, this source of pollution is growing rapidly.

Seattle’s new code will avoid an estimated 12 percent increase in the sector’s climate pollution by 2050. It should also prevent the future growth of this pollution as more buildings are constructed and operate for decades—generations—to come.

Building smart from the start

The code includes three main components to reduce carbon emissions and help Seattle move toward cleaner energy and healthier buildings for residents:

  1. Save energy first. When it comes to energy efficiency, walls, roofs, and windows matter most. The code requires building exteriors that minimize air leakage and heat loss, as well as high-efficiency lighting. These create more comfortable indoor spaces, reduce wasted energy, and reduce the costs of monthly utility bills.
  2. Prioritize clean energy from electricity and eliminate most uses of fossil fuel. Fossil fuels like oil and fracked gas are harmful to health and the environment. Although gas stoves are allowed, the new code creates a path to phase them out along with polluting appliances like furnaces and hot water heaters and take advantage of Seattle’s carbon-neutral electricity. The code requires electric space heating and water heating as well as electric-ready wiring, so that developers install the electrical infrastructure needed for future conversion of gas appliances.
  3. Make it easy to harness the power of the sun. The code specifies that buildings must be solar-ready, enabling easy future installation of solar panels, making clean, affordable power more accessible to more people. Solar-readiness also avoids the costs of having to retrofit in the future.

Strong community support

Local advocates, especially the NW Energy Coalition and Shift Zero, along with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Sierra Club Washington State Chapter, worked hard to build a strong coalition to support the passage of the code updates.

Emerald Cities Collaborative, a local partner through the Climate Challenge, also helped think through technical considerations for developers, especially those of affordable housing. The prominent labor group MLK Labor Council, which represents more than 150 unions and 100,000 workers, also spoke up in support.

A model for beyond the city

Seattle’s leadership on this is translating to state proposals, including one from Governor Inslee for the upcoming legislative session, to eliminate all fossil fuels from new construction by 2030 and from existing buildings by 2050.

The City Council’s passage of this code will inspire other cities and other leaders. Many cities are seeking to get fossil fuels out of buildings, while encouraging affordable housing and a just transition to a clean energy future for local workers. Seattle joins San Jose and other cities showing the way forward.

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