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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Camden: Proposals latest in long line of changes


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. Thanks to the construction of dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers, the Northwest had enjoyed abundant electricity for much of the last half-century.

We, however, bought a home with a furnace that might best be described as a grain silo that swallowed an octopus. It burned heating oil. We put in a high-efficiency burner after about a year.

The region got used to its glut of electricity, so much so that when most of the good sites for hydroelectric dams were used 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 our local utility was offering incentives to switch from electricity to natural gas, we took advantage of a free hookup and got a new gas furnace.

When we moved to Olympia in 2009, we bought a house built in 1976 that had baseboard electric heat. All our heating units were located in front of windows with aluminum frames, so about 80 percent 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 hookup plus rebates for new customers who would connect at least three appliances. It seemed like the government and the utility were throwing money at us.

Last month, the water heater reached the end of its life cycle. It runs on natural gas, which is at the center of the Building Code Council’s debate over energy sources for new homes and businesses.

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.

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 problem or a new shortage. And the government or the utilities might start offering incentives to cut down on electricity use and substitute something else.