Washington state moves to electrify new buildings by requiring heat pumps

New commercial buildings in Washington will have to conform to what are now the country’s strongest electrification standards for the sector.

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The Seattle skyline. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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Dozens of all-electric buildings are sprouting up across Washington state as more developers ditch gas-fired systems in a bid to curb pollution. A diverse array of facilities now use electric heat pumps to warm rooms and water supplies, including a renovated K–8 school in West Seattle, a community center for the Skokomish Indian Tribe, a youth theater in Bellevue and Microsoft’s corporate campus kitchen in Redmond.

These buildings won’t be novelties for much longer. Soon, new commercial buildings in the state will have to use heat pumps for space heating in most cases, following a key vote by an obscure state body. Washington’s Building Code Council voted 113 late last week to restrict the use of gas in new office complexes, apartment towers and other large facilities starting in July 2023

The revisions give Washington the strongest standards in the country for electrifying commercial buildings, said Jonny Kocher, a senior associate for RMI, a clean energy think tank. Kocher proposed the code changes that the council largely adopted on April 22. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

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It was important for Washington to put a stake in the ground and say, We think this is possible,’” Kocher said in an interview.

Washington’s code revisions are part of a broader, state-mandated effort to improve buildings’ energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the sector. Buildings are the fastest-growing source of carbon pollution in the state, and they account for 27 percent of the state’s total emissions. The council, whose members are appointed by the governor, is tasked with updating building codes to help meet the state’s energy and climate targets.

(Washington State Department of Commerce)

Taking a small step forward in reducing our natural-gas usage is one way to reach our goal that we’re mandated to get to,” Katy Sheehan, a council member who voted to approve the changes, said at last week’s meeting, The Spokesman-Review reported. Sheehan added that burning more fossil fuels amounts to risky behavior” in the face of climate change. 

City and state officials nationwide are using building codes and standards as a tool to help accelerate the shift away from gas-powered heaters and boilers as well as gas-burning stoves — the latter of which can produce unsafe levels of indoor air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

Last year, the California Energy Commission adopted energy-efficiency standards for new and renovated buildings that strongly incentivize the use of heat pumps. New York City recently passed a bill that bans new buildings from hooking up to gas — though a proposal in New York’s state legislature to ban fossil-fuel heating in new buildings was dropped during budget negotiations this month.

In Washington, the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Shoreline have amended their own codes to restrict gas use in new buildings, and three counties are considering similar proposals. Now that the Building Code Council has revised commercial codes statewide, the council members are expected to consider proposals for banning or limiting gas use in new residential buildings later this year.

Building industry groups have opposed the state’s green building mandates, arguing that the changes could increase costs for developers, building operators and people who own or rent homes. Trade associations have joined with gas utilities in recent years to fight local electrification efforts in Washington and neighboring Oregon. In 2019, the Partnership for Energy Progress, whose members include utilities Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Natural Gas, said it planned to spend $1 million on a public relations campaign to promote gas as part of the region’s clean energy future, The Seattle Times reported.

New codes spur heat-pump makers to boost supplies

But even before the new code revisions go into effect, Washington state is already beginning to move away from fossil gas. Shift Zero, an alliance of green building groups, counts nearly 60 highly efficient, fully electric buildings and homes in its database of Washington properties, though the list isn’t comprehensive.

Almost all of those facilities use air-source heat pumps, which work a lot like air conditioners. To cool rooms, the units use a condensing liquid to absorb the excess heat indoors and transfer it outdoors. To warm rooms, heat pumps work in reverse, pulling outside air inside and transferring heat in the process — even during bone-chilling winter temperatures. These electricity-powered devices can be two to four times more energy-efficient than typical gas heating equipment.

Heat-pump systems for water supplies work similarly, except that the heat is transferred from the air into large water storage tanks. One manufacturer, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US, said its newest heat-pump product can initially cost three to four times more than a comparable gas water-heating system. But heat-pump water heaters can significantly reduce a building’s overall energy use and thus lower energy bills over time.

Mitsubishi’s QAHV hot-water heat pump uses carbon dioxide as the refrigerant instead of artificial cooling agents such as chlorofluorocarbons, which are known to destroy the earth’s protective ozone layer. The company recently began selling the system in the United States, largely in response to the wave of state and city policy changes. Although the QAHV heat pump is already sold in Japan and European countries, the U.S. will likely become the biggest market in the next year or so, said Matt Blocker, the company’s senior manager of commercial product development.

There’s just a high demand overall with the electrification push,” said Blocker, who is based in Minneapolis.

About three dozen of Mitsubishi’s heat pumps are already operating or being installed nationwide, including a system that was retrofitted into a 100-unit affordable apartment complex for seniors in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. About 500 more systems are in the project pipeline, though Blocker said the company is moving slowly with its rollout so it can help train plumbers to install the systems correctly and learn how to use its less-familiar features, including internet-connected control panels that help monitor and share energy-efficient data in real time.

Manufacturers will need to make significantly more heat pumps and other electric appliances in order for Washington and other states to meet their timelines for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, RMI’s Kocher said. 

We need to build up the market and start increasing production of heat pumps, and the way you do that is through new building codes and incentives for existing buildings,” he said. Manufacturers see that we’re moving in this direction, and they’re ready to move in.”

A battle is coming over Washington’s residential building code

Under Washington’s updated code, builders will have to install heat pumps for space heating in virtually all new commercial construction with four or more floors. 

Initially, the Building Code Council considered requiring that heat pumps supply all of a property’s water-heating capacity as well. However, at the last minute, members voted to slash the requirement to 50 percent, in response to concerns about the higher upfront costs of heat-pump water heaters. Now buildings can use heat pumps plus other types of equipment, including energy-intensive electric-resistance water heaters or gas-fired boilers.

RMI projected that using high-efficiency heat pumps for all space and water heating needs in commercial buildings would eliminate 8.1 million tons of CO2 between 2024 — a year after the new codes take effect — and 2050. The watered-down requirements for hot-water heating will result in fewer emissions savings, but not substantially so, Kocher said.

With the commercial building rules in place, advocates and critics of building electrification policies are turning their attention to the next battleground. The Building Code Council is set to reconvene in the coming months to consider changes to Washington’s residential building codes, potentially dooming or enabling gas use in millions of future single-family homes, townhouses and other residences.

Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative for building electrification at Sierra Club, said he expects to see strong participation from residents and advocacy groups during public comment periods later this year — especially given the growing awareness that indoor gas stoves can threaten people’s health. 

We’re really looking to keep the ball rolling and take the steps we know are necessary to address the climate crisis,” he said.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.