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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: When aspirations collide with affordability

All policy decisions involve trade-offs. The State Building Code Council backed off from an outright ban on natural gas in new construction in its recent adoption of residential building codes, but continues to prioritize decarbonization in new construction over housing affordability. It’s a misdirection of the SBCC’s role from establishing baseline data-backed public health and safety codes to an aspirational policy setting body, with unfortunate consequences.

When the SBCC voted to adopt the new residential building and energy codes by a 9-5 vote, it did so in spite of an independent cost-benefit analysis. The preliminary report from the respected Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a part of the U.S. Department of Energy, concluded “overall this proposal is not cost effective” for several of the scenarios modeled.

Jennifer Thomas of the Spokane Homebuilders Association attended the virtual meeting and observed that SBCC members who are well-known for their support of Gov. Jay Inslee’s all-electric agenda “were visibly disappointed when the reported results didn’t match their preferred conclusion.”

Having once been part of an independent consultant team on the receiving end of similar disappointment from elected officials, I hope PNNL doesn’t cave to pressure and proceeds to follow the data where it leads for the final report.

The primary heat source for most new residential projects starting July 1, 2023, will have to be a gas or electric heat pump. The required backup fuel source can be electric or gas, but a simple 97% efficient natural gas furnace is no longer an option for primary heating. The challenge of building much needed new and affordable housing in Washington just got harder.

The challenge for heat pumps is cold weather. There’s a linear relationship between temperature and heat pump efficiency. For every degree drop in temperature, heat pump capacity drops. Somewhere around 25 degrees F the heat pump capacity drops below the heat loss load from a typical house and continues to drop as demand continues to rise, according to a graph provided by Tom Lienhard, retired Avista engineer consulting for the homebuilders’ association.

Lienhard’s career focus for years has been helping customers reduce energy use, and he pointed out the impact of insulation and better windows in reducing heating load. “Homes built before 2006 would need a lot more insulation before a heat pump could work,” said Lienhard, referring to homes is eastern and central Washington’s colder climate zone.

Permits for new single-family and duplex housing in Spokane County represent about 6% of all existing housing units annually, according to Thomas, SHBA’s director of government affairs . Raising standards for 6% of the housing stock will have little impact on what the all-electric proponents perceive as an existential threat to the fate of the world. Squeezing a little more efficiency comes at a high cost to housing affordability.

Over 65% of homes in the Spokane-Spokane Valley metro area were built before 1990, before the focus on energy efficiency had really taken hold. More than half were built before President Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis put double pane windows and R-19 insulation on the must-have list for homebuilders and home buyers. “When you have thousands of homes in the Spokane area consuming a lot of energy and we’re driving up prices on new construction in the middle of a housing crisis, it’s exacerbating a problem instead of really solving a community issue,” Thomas said.

There’s irony in adopting codes requiring more sophisticated and expensive housing construction for the haves to reduce atmospheric carbon, while handing out propane heaters to the have-nots. There’s injustice in discussing proposals to address homelessness with options outside of the building and life safety codes with “tiny homes” and old RVs. Fires like the one at Camp Hope on Tuesday are not uncommon in homeless encampments in Washington. They are an unintended consequence of a state government not leaning in to the trade-offs between decarbonization and affordability.

The adoption of new building and energy codes by the State Building Code Council is a done deal after sitting through a single legislative session. It’s a “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment for the Washington Legislature. The final PNNL report on the cost to residential systems should be available before the session expires to provide hard data. No formal action is required, but trade-offs are the job of the Legislature. This would be a good year to speak up.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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