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News / Business / Clark County Business

Washington’s updated building codes seen as vital tool to fight climate change

Only transportation generates more carbon emissions than buildings

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 9, 2023, 6:05am

Updating building codes might just be one of Washington’s most promising tools in combating climate change.

These policies are designed to cut a chunk of the state’s net carbon emissions. Specifically, they will tackle Washington’s fastest growing and second largest carbon-producing sector: buildings. The largest contributor is transportation.

In 2019, Washington reported that residential, commercial and industrial heating accounted for 25.3 million metric tons of the state’s net greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about 25 percent of the state’s emissions and is equal to what more than 5.4 million gas-powered vehicles produce in one year.

In other words, residents burn a lot of carbon to heat their homes, cook their food and bathe. Enter strict energy standards.

The Washington State Building Code Council’s recent revisions to the state’s energy code — updated every three years — requires energy-efficient heat pumps for space and water heating in all new residential buildings, and it takes effect on July 1.

Researchers estimate that the updates will reduce 12.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide statewide over 30 years, according to a report by state-hired consultant Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. That’s the equivalent of what more than 2.6 million vehicles produce in one year.

Liz Reichart, state Department of Commerce senior energy policy specialist, said the policies are necessary to remain on track with the 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act, which commits the state to transition to completely using clean energy by 2045. This includes vehicles, appliances and buildings.

Washington aims to reduce 70 percent of its net annual energy consumption in new residential and nonresidential buildings by 2031 compared with the 2006 Washington State Energy Code.

“Clean” in this sense refers to using renewable and zero-emission resources, which don’t pollute the atmosphere like traditionally used fossil fuels, Reichart said. That means a switch to carbon-free resources, such as wind and solar.

In conjunction with the state’s lofty carbon-cutting goals, utilities are required to phase out coal-fired electricity and transition to renewable or non-emitting power.

It’s a nationwide effort leading to observable changes. A majority of electricity generated in the United States last year consisted of renewable energy, trumping coal or nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Officials predict that demand for electricity will roughly double by 2050 as Washington pivots away from fossil fuels in its transportation, buildings and industry sectors.

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And the change will certainly affect the state’s electric supply.

The building sector alone will require about 30 percent more energy from electricity than would have been used under a “business as usual” scenario, according to the 2021 State Energy Strategy. Requiring electric heat pumps in new buildings falls in tandem with other green initiatives, such as mandating all-electric car sales by 2035, which will burgeon demands from Washington’s power grid.

State officials said earlier this year that Washington will need to import electricity by 2050 to sustain its clean energy goals.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer