A proposed requirement that electric heat pumps be installed in newly constructed Washington homes to cut reliance on natural gas is being scaled back.
The decision followed a three-hour meeting on Friday of the state Building Code Council. The council met in Spokane Valley to collect comments from Eastern Washington.
The council decided to dissolve proposed regulations that would require heat pumps in new houses and apartments, and instead opted for changes to existing code designed to incentivize energy infrastructure that minimizes natural gas emissions.
Any changes to building codes are now set to take effect on March 15, 2024.
Those who oppose heat pump requirements have pointed to the cost of installing the machines and say the warming systems are not effective in the colder temperatures on the eastern side of Washington.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French has been vocal in his opposition to heat pump requirements and incentives. He said there are more than 370,000 Washington residents who use natural gas for heating who shouldn’t be required to install a heat pump if their gas furnaces break down.
“I’ve been in opposition to the state eliminating natural gas here in the state of Washington for quite a while,” French said. “I did not agree with the change in the code and was optimistic that something would change that perspective. … We are not Western Washington. We have temperatures that get well below 20 degrees. Heat pumps do not work in that cold environment.”
Supporters of the move to require heat pumps have said the alternative to electric natural gas could cause a home in Spokane County to produce 60% less in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years.
Claire Richards, a nurse and representative of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, spoke Friday in favor of building codes that promote heat pumps.
Richards said changing building codes is a way to “mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown” at the same time.
“For public health, we need to move away from gas appliances that pollute the air,” Richards said.
Along with public controversy, proposed changes to the energy code proposal were spurred by a California lawsuit this year in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled federal law prevents state regulations on natural gas appliances being installed in household and restaurant kitchens. Building Code Council member Kjell Anderson mentioned the California Restaurant Association v. City of Berkeley lawsuit at Friday’s meeting.
Joel White, executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association, said the extension of the code’s implementation date will allow lawmakers to address the proposed regulations during the 2024 legislative session.
“They didn’t address it last year, even though we brought the concern to the Legislature,” White said. “Of course with the Berkeley-led lawsuit and others, we know there are some challenges with some of the things that they’re trying to adopt.”
The Building Code Council plans to hold another hearing about the energy code changes this fall.