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Proposed Washington Heat Pump Mandate Flares Debate

(The Center Square) – A proposal by the Washington State Building Code Council to mandate heat pumps in all new residential construction has garnered a split reaction from the public, which was reflected in a recent episode of TVW’s “The Impact” that saw two supporters and an opponent of the proposal make their cases.

A heat pump is a device that takes heat from one source and moves it to another location through electric or mechanical means. Heat pumps may be used either to heat or cool.

More than 50 people testified at a Sept. 29 SBCC meeting about the proposed change to the state’s energy code, with dozens more submitting written testimony both for and against the measure.

Boosters claim the proposal is a cost-effective step in reducing carbon emissions across the state by burning less fossil fuels as part of the fight against climate change. Others have criticized the proposal on the grounds it will increase the purchase price of a home while expressing skepticism about the electric grid’s ability to handle the additional load.

Dan Welch, an architect with Bellingham-based Bundle Design Studio, is confident the pieces are in place for a transition to a more green economy, including a heat pump mandate.

“And so all of the technology that we need to electrify buildings and address climate action plans that are both local and national and world are really easy to address with technology that is available right now,” he told host Mike McClanahan on the Oct. 5 edition of “The Impact.”

With some exceptions for smaller houses, the new code would require the heating of air and water in new single-family dwellings, duplexes, and townhouses be done by heat pump, either gas or electric.

“From our experience, electric buildings are cheaper to construct from the very beginning,” Welch said.

He went on to say, “Once you look at the whole picture, electrification and heat pump technology make sense day in and day out. There’s no question about that.”

Andrea Smith, policy and research manager in government affairs for the Building Industry Association of Washington, disagreed, noting that heat pumps tend to cost more than natural gas furnaces or air conditioning.

“And so from member data and an internal member survey, we found that these two code change proposals for heat pump space heating and water heating would basically add $8,300 to the cost of a home, and that’s the true cost to the consumer,” she said. “And over the lifetime of a mortgage that would equal about $25,000 after you take into consideration the interest that you’re paying on it as well.”

She also brought up supply chain issues that are increasing the cost of heat pumps.

Welch dismissed supply chain snafus as a criticism of heat pumps.

“So I don’t think that’s a valid concern,” he said. “I think it’s something that’s going to have to be addressed market-wide, and not just heat pump components.”

Dr. Gordon Wheat with Olympia Physicians for Social Responsibility favors the proposed change on health grounds, noting it would provide cleaner air for homeowners.

Mandating heat pumps would discourage the installation of new gas cooking stoves that cause indoor pollution resulting in increased incidents of asthma, especially in children, as well as increased incidents of cardiovascular disease and cancer in adults, he explained.

“So, less cooking with gas would improve public health immediately,” Wheat said.

Another concern is the state’s electrical grid.

“Our electric grid is not ready for the increased demand from electric vehicle charging within homes as well as a fully electric home,” Smith said. “We’ve heard from many utilities and many trade groups…that there are not enough linemen and there’s not enough grid capacity to meet demand, so that is one of our major concerns.”

Welch, on the other hand, isn’t worried.

“I’m not terribly concerned about it as much as a lot of the opponents are to this, because I think that again the business model’s going to change, the grid management’s going to change, storage of renewables is going to change,” he explained. “But what’s important is that as we’re moving forward with a lot of these changes is the efficiency of a lot of our technology is drastically changing as well, and when everything we put on the market is becoming more and more efficient, and so I think that has to be taken into consideration.”

The SBCC, comprised of 15 members appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is in the process of updating the state’s energy code. State law requires the SBCC to update the energy code to reduce 70% of the annual energy consumption from buildings by 2031 compared to a 2006 baseline.

The current public comment period ends at 5 p.m. on Oct. 14.

Earlier this year, the council mandated that new commercial and multi-family construction be outfitted with all-electric space heating and hot water systems.