It’s a small step, but an important one in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously passed a new building code for commercial properties. It requires all new construction to meet much higher standards for energy efficiency.
The code also encourages the use of clean and renewable sources for power, such as rooftop solar, by requiring wiring to support it where feasible. And it phases out the use of natural gas and other fossil fuels for heating and cooling. Instead, developers must use high-efficiency electric pumps.
Buildings, in general, and their heating systems are the second-largest -- and fastest growing -- source of climate pollution for Washington. Transportation is the largest source. Statewide proposals to address both of those issues are currently moving through the Legislature in Olympia.
Seattle is the state’s largest municipality, so it sets a significant example for other jurisdictions in the region. Speaking after the 9-0 vote, City Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, vice chair of the Land Use and Neighborhoods committee, called the new code “historic."
“Recognizing that the buildings that we build for today, they're going to last for generations, hopefully. ... We want (them) to truly help build a better and healthier future for our region and our world," she said.
Bellingham and King County are discussing similar policies.
Amy Wheeless has been campaigning for these changes for years. She’s a policy analyst with the Northwest Energy Coalition, which includes Washington as well as Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
She says our society just has to find ways to stop burning things for heat.
“We have the technology to do things a bit cleaner and more efficiently,” she said. “We think it's really important that we're seeing (this) great policy come from Seattle, so we can take those best practices to other cities we work with.”
There is recognition that although Seattle’s electricity primarily comes from hydropower, it is not without issues. But its carbon footprint is much lower than power from fossil fuel-burning generators. And it is less dangerous than natural gas, which can be a major and potent source of greenhouse gas emissions during production and transport.
Another aspect that the city council explained must be monitored, is the use of certain chemicals in the heat pumps they are requiring.
“Refrigerants that, if not maintained and inspected, also have a great impact on our climate,” said Dan Strauss, chair of the Land Use and Neighborhoods committee.
But the council seems confident that this can be managed, along with some of the concerns about protecting union jobs as the policy forces change in a “just transition.”
The bottom line, says Wheeless, is that Seattle is now focused on new construction that points the way to a sustainable future, by permitting only certain kinds of buildings.
“We're making sure that they're climate resilient,” she says. “The worst thing that we could do is build a building and then 10 years down the road need to be able to take out some gas infrastructure in that building.”
That wouldn’t just be bad for the climate, she says, it would be costly for landlords and developers.
The new code takes effect on March 15, with some requirements phasing in over the course of this year.