This project enabled us to develop a wealth of information about specific policies and actions required to decarbonize the building, transportation, electricity, and industrial sectors in the next decade and beyond, not only in Washington, but across the Northwest.
The Clean Energy Transition Institute facilitated the technical advisory process, design, and production of the Washington State 2021 Energy Strategy from March to December with the following consultants:
Aditi Bansal, Policy and Research Analyst
Marc Daudon, Senior Fellow
Nicole Larson, Research Assistant
David Paolella, Policy and Research Analyst
Eileen V. Quigley, Executive Director
Jeremy Hargreaves, Principal
Scott Nystrom, Senior Director
Roel Hammerschlag, Principal
Betony Jones, Founder
Karen Beck, Partner
Carol Maglitta, Partner
Derik Broekhoff, Senior Scientist
Michael Lazarus, U.S. Center Director
Poppy Storm, Founder and Director of Innovation
Buildings account for more than a quarter of Washington state’s greenhouse gas emissions, up 50% since 1990 and now comprising 27 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Both the Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy and legislation currently under consideration in the state legislature aim to reduce those emissions to zero by 2050. The question is how to achieve that emissions target equitably and to ensure that low- and moderate-income Washingtonians do not shoulder an unfair share of the cost of achieving deep decarbonization in the built environment.
Washingtonians enjoy some of the lowest cost electricity in the country due to an abundance of hydropower. Yet nearly 750,000 Washington households spend an excessive percentage of household income on home energy. Households for whom home energy costs exceed 6% of household income are considered energy burdened. Low- and moderate-income households spend the largest percentage of their income on energy, making their energy burden three times higher than the rest of the population in the state. Poor construction and maintenance, lower rent prices in older housing stocks, and renters’ lack of control over energy bills and improvements mean that these residents pay higher utility costs per square foot.
In neighborhoods that house predominantly Black and brown residents, the energy burden is 27% more than that of residents from the same income bracket in predominantly white neighborhoods. Similar disparities in energy burdens for people of color compared to white neighborhoods exist at every income bracket. This is often due to a history of redlining and de facto segregation, forcing minority families into neighborhoods with older housing and smaller units.
While white households use more energy overall, households of color often have a higher energy use intensity (EUI)–energy used per square foot of space—due to lower levels of energy efficiency. Low-income housing residents have little control over their energy cost because building owners of rental and low-income affordable housing are not incentivized to make energy efficiency investments.
In some Washington counties, Ferry and Okanogan in particular, which have the highest percentage of Native populations, the poorest households are estimated to spend 27-30% of household income on home energy. Energy-burdened households often forego food, medical care, or other basic necessities to cover home energy costs, or they keep their home at unhealthy temperatures to lower energy bills.
The purpose of the Buildings Decarbonization with an Equity Focus project is first to understand the barriers to equitably decarbonizing buildings that low-income, energy-burdened households and renters in Washington’s rural counties encounter.
The project will undertake systematic mapping of the programs and organizations in the ecosystem that provide energy efficiency, weatherization, and decarbonization services for rural, low-income households. This exercise will identify the challenges, barriers, and opportunities for equitable program implementation and policymaking.
The Residential Building Stock Assessment Multifamily Buildings Report 2016-2017 produced by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance notes that “electric baseboard heaters and other electric resistance zonal equipment serve as the primary heat source for roughly 75% of multifamily buildings.” Therefore, the challenge facing buildings in Washington is not the reliance on natural gas for heating and cooling purposes; it is how to transition to heat pump and high efficiency equipment and reduce indoor air pollution from gas and propane cookstoves.
The project will also explore the potential for distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar or electric vehicle charging infrastructure, that would reduce dependency on fossil fuel for electricity and gasoline or diesel for transportation and build energy independence in rural communities. Broadband access to enable distributed energy resources will also be explored.
Second, the project will aim to assess public health implications of aging infrastructure for building inhabitants. This assessment will include data collection and analysis to understand the impact of indoor air quality, aging homes with issues of insulation, mold, and prevalence of asthma in rural, low-income communities.
Furthermore, the research will include analysis of the health impact of natural gas cooking. Gas stoves are linked to increased rates of childhood asthma and can cause indoor air quality to be worse than outdoor air. Qualitative assessment will augment data analysis and will include collaboration with community members and organizations focused on decarbonization, weatherization, and public health in rural communities.
Third, the research will address the opportunities for economic development focused on equity. The assessment will examine the prospect of cultivating a diverse contractor base in rural counties in collaboration with local partners, and training programs for rural residents.
Finally, this project will co-design a pilot project with community partners to examine equity considerations in decarbonizing low-income households and eradicating natural gas, oil, and/or propane for space and water heating in rural counties. Through this partnership, city and state policy recommendations will be developed to address equity considerations in building decarbonization, weatherization, public health, and economic development.
The Decarbonizing Buildings with An Equity Focus project reveals barriers to reducing carbon emissions from buildings equitably in the Northwest. The Institute co-develops the project in conjunction with disproportionately impacted communities. The work results in specific city and state policy recommendations. The Institute supports communities disproportionately impacted by the clean energy transition by providing fundraising assistance to conduct a follow-up pilot project.
 Caleb Heeringa, “Our Buildings Have a Gas Problem,” Sierra Club Washington State (blog), September 17, 2019, https://www.sierraclub.org/washington/blog/2019/09/our-buildings-have-gas-problem
 Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy, Washington Department of Commerce https://www.commerce.wa.gov/growing-the-economy/energy/2021-state-energy-strategy/
 “Washington State Scorecard” (ACEEE, n.d.), https://database.aceee.org/state/washington.; “Energy Assistance for Low-Income Households,” RCW 19.405.120 § (n.d.), https://www.commerce.wa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Guidelines-for-19.405.120.pdf.
 Webly Bowles, “Energy Efficiency and Equity,” New Buildings Institute (blog), September 25, 2018, https://newbuildings.org/energy-efficiency-and-equity/.
 Brentin Mock, “Neighborhoods With More People of Color Pay Higher Energy Bills,” CityLab, November 25, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/11/minority-utility-costs-burden-energy-discimination-research/602452/.
 “Understanding Energy Affordability: How Energy Efficiency Can Alleviate High Energy Burdens” (ACEEE, n.d.), https://www.aceee.org/sites/default/files/energy-affordability.pdf
 Teja, Anu, and Corinne McCarthy. “Residential Building Stock Assessment| Multifamily Buildings Report 2016-2017.” Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA), April 2019. https://neea.org/img/documents/Residential-Building-Stock-Assessment-II-Multifamily-Homes-Report-2016-2017.pdf.
 Caleb Heeringa, “Our Buildings Have a Gas Problem,” Sierra Club Washington State (blog), September 17, 2019, https://www.sierraclub.org/washington/blog/2019/09/our-buildings-have-gas-problem.