An Ambitious Clean Buildings Act for Washington State

Attic insulation with Weather Assistance Program

At the outset of the Washington 2021 legislative session, State Representative Alex Ramel (D-40th District) introduced a comprehensive and ambitious bill to address the approximately one-fifth of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions that are directly attributable to buildings, the Healthy Homes and Clean Buildings bill (HB1084).

Direct combustion of natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings for space heating, water heating, and cooking are responsible for the greatest proportion of emissions and HB1084 is focused on reducing emissions from natural gas space and water heating in residential and commercial buildings. The bill also attempts to address energy affordability and reducing energy burden for low-income households.

The bill is rich with policies to move the state forward on decarbonizing the built environment. We focus on three key provisions here: strengthening the state energy code; developing a statewide clean heat standard to limit natural gas expansion for buildings; and advancing clean electricity to power buildings.

Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy

Representative Ramel participated on the Advisory Committee that helped the state’s Department of Commerce develop the Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy throughout 2020. As part of that process, the state conducted a deep decarbonization pathways (DDP) study that modeled different scenarios for how the state might meet both its greenhouse gas (GHG) limits established by the Washington Legislature in 2020, as well as the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) passed in 2019.

Washington's greenhouse gas (GHG) targets are net zero and a 95% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050, with interim economy-wide emissions limits of 45% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 70% below 1990 levels by 2040. CETA requires a GHG-neutral electricity supply by 2030 and 100% renewable or non-emitting electricity by 2045, while incorporating equity, reliability, and resource adequacy principles.

A key finding of the DDP study’s Electrification Scenario, which investigates a rapid shift to electrified end uses, is that when buildings are powered by electricity, there is 26% drop in building energy use in 2050. When gas is retained in buildings, the drop in energy demand in buildings is only 13% by 2050. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Scale And Pace Of Energy Use Reductions Required To Meet Economy-Wide Emissions Limits

Strengthen and Expand Energy Codes and Standards

Section 2.1 of Chapter D in the Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy calls for energy codes and standards to be strengthened and expanded. HB1084 would require new buildings constructed in 2030 or after to be zero carbon, with no fossil gas used for space and water heating in new construction after 2027.  

The current building code requires a maximum of 70% reduction in emissions, which would not deliver zero-energy, fossil-free new construction by 2030. Furthermore, typically it can take three to five years from commercial building design to construction and operation, which means that buildings built to the 2027 code will not meet decarbonization targets until the 2030s. HB1084 addresses these issues in the energy code to enable net-zero buildings sooner.

In addition, the bill would require the Department of Commerce to create energy management and benchmarking requirements for tier 2, (building size >=50,000 gross square feet) and tier 3, (building size >=10,000 gross square feet) commercial buildings, which the state energy strategy recommends. Although the bill does not include a residential performance standard, it would put a majority of Washington’s commercial building stock on the pathway to become net zero.

Statewide Clean Heat Standard

HB1084 would establish a Statewide Clean Heat Standard (CHS) to limit expansion of natural gas systems for residential and commercial space and water heating. Furthermore, the bill proposes advancing the usage of “high-efficiency electric equipment, the production and distribution of clean fuels, and the safe and equitable transition of the natural gas system.”

Shifting the development of electric high-efficiency technology and demand for building equipment to meet the 2030 and 2050 GHG targets will need policy programs that incentivize high-efficiency electric equipment.

According to the DDP model, energy efficiency actions, combined with electrification, in the building sector would reduce all energy loads by 26% in 2050. Therefore, this bill’s push for high-efficiency electric equipment and limits on expansion of the natural gas systems are aligned with the transformation that the analysis indicates is required for the state to meet its GHG targets for 2030 and 2050.  

Heat Pump and Electrification Program

A third key HB1084 provision is a proposed Heat Pump and Electrification Program (HPE) to support the use of clean electricity for heating and cooling that the Department of Commerce would run. The proposal’s objective is to support jobs and workforce development bolstered by transitioning commercial and residential buildings away from natural gas.

The bill includes language that permits Commerce to provide higher incentives and payments to low- to moderate-income residents and owners of rental properties and overburdened households.

Also, the bill requires the Department of Commerce to “support the development of a workforce training and certification program for the installation of equipment in coordination with the state board for community and technical colleges, and develop and implement an incentive program for residential and commercial building owners that convert from a fossil fuel system to a heat pump.”

The 2021 State Energy Strategy includes a similar action for the Legislature to create and fund a high efficiency Electrification program (Chapter D, Section 2.4) to help the state reduce its energy loads and meet its 2030 and 2050 emissions reductions targets.  

California, New York and Massachusetts have similar programs where the state offers incentives to increase usage of high efficiency, low emissions technologies such as heat pumps.

Equity and Workforce Implications

Meeting the state’s energy and GHG reduction goals represents a significant and intentional intervention in the state’s economy. To realize this vision, the state must change the status quo where Black, Native, and people of color are disproportionately energy-burdened, stop perpetuating past inequities, and give particular weight to HB 1084’s equity and workforce implications when weighing its costs and benefits.

The CHS and the HPE provisions include language for how each of these programs would ensure that overburdened, low-income communities are not disproportionately impacted, and receive program benefits.

Both programs discuss how designated program administrators would need to ensure that benefits are equitably distributed. For the CHS, the proposed legislation also emphasizes the role that utilities must play to guarantee an equitable transition of the natural gas system through efforts for equitable distribution of benefits and a just transition for workers impacted by layoffs.

Figure 2: Three Dimensions of Environmental Justice

The HPE program specifically calls for additional incentives for low- to moderate-income customers and overburdened populations. The bill would authorize Commerce to work with nonprofit trade associations, regional market transformation organizations, or community organizations to implement the program. From a structural and distributional justice lens, defined in Figure 2, the bill makes important efforts to prevent future negative consequences and ensures that benefits and burdens are distributed fairly.  

Both CHS and HPE provisions focus on workforce development through incentives, education and outreach resources, and a requirement for utilities to develop layoff avoidance strategies to address a just transition for fossil fuel workers. The bill initiates the opportunity for developing a clean energy and building decarbonization workforce of the future.

Rep. Ramel’s Health Home and Clean Buildings Act provides the state a model for reducing building sector GHG emissions with a focus on advancing technology and adoption, equity, and workforce development. If passed, Washington state would get on the pathway to decarbonizing the state’s built environment.

Legislative tracking page for the bill.

Aditi Bansal

Aditi Bansal was a Research and Policy Analyst at the Clean Energy Transition Institute from June 2020-June 2021. She received her Master's in Sustainability Management from Columbia University in 2020. Her graduate studies focused on climate justice and energy access in resettlement camps. She also specializes in policy research and development for renewable energy programs, with a focus on low-income inclusion.
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