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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Building code proposals just the latest in a long line of energy changes

This photo from 1922 was taken of an old Reo tank truck that belonged to Betts Oil Company. The truck delivered heating oil and required hand pumping.  (Photo submitted by R.L. Betts)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Watching a hearing for the state Building Code Council last week at which people debated proposals for rules that would result in more electric heat pumps and fewer gas furnaces made me think back over nearly 50 years of owning homes.

Along the way, various programs from government agencies or utilities nudged us into making decisions on what type of energy we used to cook and keep warm.

When my wife and I were looking for our first house after moving to Spokane in 1981, our real estate agent told us local homes basically had three types of heat: electric, natural gas and oil.

Coming from the Midwest, we were mainly familiar with natural gas, which was in the home we had just sold. Like many people, we burned wood in a small fireplace, but more for aesthetics than to keep the gas bill down. Electricity was too expensive and heating oil was something one heard about once a year when the prospect of a heating oil shortage in New England was forecast.

But thanks to the construction of dams along the Columbia and later the Snake rivers, the Northwest had enjoyed abundant electricity for much of the last half century. Along with smelting aluminum and supplying the electricity to make the nation’s nuclear warheads, it was available to heat homes and businesses. During one of my first stories about energy, a spokesman for what was then Washington Water Power, carefully explained why the utility’s peak loads were in the coldest days of winter, not the hottest days of summer like I was accustomed to.

Many homes built in the decades right after World War II had electric baseboard heat. Some newer homes had natural gas, somewhat dependent on whether there was an accessible gas line.

We, however, bought a home that was built before World War I, which had a furnace that might best be described as a grain silo that swallowed an octopus. It burned heating oil. The person who inspected it before we signed the purchase contract said it originally burned coal – a nearby storage room in the basement still had coal dust on the wall – but was likely retrofitted with an oil burner sometime in the ’50s when coal fell out of favor. We put on a high-efficiency burner after about a year.

Oil, which is essentially diesel, was delivered by truck and was pumped into a tank. The price fluctuated on an almost daily basis and from one supplier to another. Heating with oil sometimes had the feeling of dabbling in the spot petroleum market, calling around to find the cheapest price. With a 150-gallon tank, a 10-cent difference amounted to a $15 savings.

The region got used to its glut of electricity, so much so that when most of the good sites for hydroelectric dams were used it up, it embarked on an ambitious plan to build five nuclear power plants that were initially described as creating power that would be “too cheap to meter.” That prediction was possibly the first mistake that could be credited to the Washington Public Power Supply System, which turned out to have the world’s most appropriate acronym, WPPSS – pronounced “Whoops.”

By the mid 1980s, the projects were way over budget, way behind schedule and four were canceled. The system’s bonds were in default and utilities where trying to find power through conservation rather than construction.

At that point, because WWP was offering incentives to switch from electricity to natural gas, we took advantage of a free hookup and got a new gas furnace. We also got some tax credits for insulating our old Craftsman four-square.

When we moved to Olympia in 2009, we bought a house built in 1976 that had baseboard electric heat. Proponents of electric heat like to claim it is nearly 100% efficient because, unlike oil, gas or wood, none of the heat goes up a chimney or flue. That may be true, but all of our heating units were located in front of windows with aluminum frames, so about 80% of our heat seemed to be going out the window and our electric bill reflected that.

Fortunately for us, although not for the country, it was the middle of the recession and the federal government had great tax incentives in the Recovery Act for reducing energy consumption. The local utility, Puget Sound Energy, was also trying to expand its natural gas base and was offering a free hook up plus rebates for new customers who would connect at least three appliances. We had to replace the water heater and stove anyway, so we added on a furnace, all natural gas, and it seemed like the government and the utility were throwing money at us.

Last month, that water heater reached the end of its life cycle and the tank began leaking. We were going to just replace it, but discovered that a tankless on-demand water heater was eligible for a rebate from the utility and a tax credit from the federal government. It’s more expensive but more efficient, so if we live long enough we’ll be money ahead.

But it also runs on natural gas. While it will use much less of that fuel than the old tank did, natural gas is at the center of the Building Code Council’s debate over energy sources for new homes and businesses.

Knowing that natural gas is falling out of favor in some circles, I asked the plumber, who also installs electric tankless water heaters if that was a better option. He advised against it, saying they’ve had fewer problems with natural gas models.

At the Building Code Council hearing, environmental experts who want the state to push electric heat pumps in new construction said buildings heated with natural gas are a major source of greenhouse gases in the state.

Builders warned that stricter codes will raise construction costs and price some buyers out of the market, adding that people want choice in their energy sources.

What happens to all those electric-heated homes in a prolonged power outage, demanded one old-timer who harkened back to the great Columbus Day windstorm of 1962 when electricity was out for weeks in some parts of the Puget Sound.

Based on my experience with Spokane’s 1996 Ice Storm, it’s probably the same thing that happens to the natural-gas heated homes, which also get cold because there’s no electricity to run the fan to push the hot air out of the furnace or in some cases to ignite the pilot light.

All of this is to suggest that the Building Code Council, with the help or hindrance of the Legislature, the governor’s office, the courts and various interest groups, may come up with a way to push homeowners and businesses to use more electricity or less natural gas in the coming years.

Just as they discovered with programs that pushed people toward natural gas and away from electricity, it might not work exactly as expected. Conditions change and energy is a tricky thing to predict.

So don’t be surprised if, in a decade or so, there’s a new situation creating a new problem or a new shortage. And the government or the utilities might start offering incentives to cut down on electricity use and substitute with something else.