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State Building Code Council adopts energy code amendments amid controversy

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(The Center Square) – The Washington State Building Code Council has adopted amendments to statewide energy codes amid controversy over their stringency for builders regarding heating sources that some critics say puts the state at risk of a lawsuit.

The council vote came after an extended back-and-forth over regulations regarding the installation of natural gas in new residential and commercial buildings. The council voted in November to mandate heat pumps for space and water heating, while prohibiting natural gas lines. The council later delayed implementation of the code, then proposed new rules that didn’t require heat pumps but place additional regulations around installing natural gas.

While proponents cite what they believe are the environmental and health benefits, others argue they make it more costly to build homes by favoring heat pumps, which have high upfront costs but have high energy efficiency.

Council Vice Chair Daimon Doyle told colleagues at council’s Tuesday meeting that it was the “worst energy code I’ve seen since 2006. I think it’s going to cause a lot of harm.”

He added, “As somebody said to me in discussion, we’re not picking a state flower here. We’re putting out a rather rigid building code.”

Ex-officio member Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, pushed back against the lack of a complete cost-benefit analysis, noting that the council had only completed a preliminary analysis. “It seems to me that you’d want to have the actual analysis done before you adopt a rule, before it goes into effect you’d want to know what the analysis said.”

She also argued that limiting the use of natural gas would put the state out of compliance with a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck down a city of Berkley ordinance regulating energy use, on the basis that federal law preempted it.

“We’ve got to be concerned about that,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to be in full compliance. It’s partially, which means it is not in compliance. We’re pushing this thing way too fast, we’re doing mental gymnastics to make this thing work.”

While the Building Industry Association of Washington estimates the new code will add $9,000 to the cost of all-electric homes and $30,000 for natural gas homes, supporters of the code update point to a 2022 financial impact study by the state Department of Commerce that estimates all-electric homes save $1,000 per year over the lifetime of the equipment.

In a press release statement, Shift Zero Managing Director Rachel Koller wrote that “ultra-efficient buildings powered by clean electricity in Washington state are a climate and public health imperative, and these energy codes use proven technology to get us there. The council’s energy codes for new construction are a critical part of the solution to cleaner air for our communities.”

However, BIAW Executive Vice President Greg Lane wrote in a statement that “these new rules clearly continue to violate the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which expressly preempts state and local regulations concerning the energy use of many natural gas appliances. Despite hundreds of messages urging the council to reject these restrictive new laws, the Building Code Council moved forward with a de facto ban on natural gas in new homes. This assault on energy security is unfair and unnecessary.”

The codes will go into effect March 15, 2024.

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