Washington state is releasing a new energy code aimed at promoting the electrification of residential and commercial buildings in the state.
One of its major initiatives is the use of heat pumps to replace many systems that formerly have relied on burning fossil fuels to perform their heating and cooling functions. The code is designed to help the state meet clean energy standards mandated under the 2021 Climate Commitment Act, which is intended to reduce emissions to 45% below 1990 emission levels by 2030.
The 2021 energy code originally was planned to take effect on July 1, but in May, the State Building Code Council voted to extend the effective date to Oct. 29.
According to a statement from the SBCC, the delay is a response to a lawsuit filed in California against similar legislation, and the time will be used to rewrite sections of the code.
“The modification would be intended to address legal uncertainty stemming from the decision in California Restaurant Association v. City of Berkeley recently issued by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,” the SBCC says.
The California suit raises objections to prohibitions against the use of natural gas in some circumstances. The Washington state code was already written with exceptions including cooking, clothes dryers, and emergency generators. However, SBCC is taking a closer look at the California decision and making changes to avoid a similar outcome, as the 9th Circuit also hears cases for Washington.
The SBCC also is contending with challenges closer to home, with a coalition of union representatives, trade associations, homeowners, and businesses that filed a petition for declaratory judgment in Thurston County’s Superior Court. In broad terms, the filing questioned the SBCC’s authority under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Another suit was filed on May 22 in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington, in which the plaintiffs also seek relief from the substantial limitations of the use of natural gas in residential and commercial facilities. In the more recent filing, the plaintiffs represent Eastern Washington as well as statewide and national organizations including the Citizen Action Defense Fund and the National Propane Gas Association.
If the code goes into effect substantially as it was written, it will cement Washington’s reputation as a leader in energy policy, with a strong focus on the use of heat pumps. To understand why heat pumps are a central part of this code, it is useful to understand their fundamental increase in efficiency over other forms of heating.
Brandon Crane is a professional engineer and certified energy manager at FSi Engineers, in Spokane. As a mechanical engineer, he has participated in presentations about proposed energy code changes to architects, engineers, and contractors. As he explains it in laymen’s terms, “(Conventional electric) resistance heating is perfectly efficient. It’s the type of heat you get from your toaster, electric kettle, or electric range. It gives you one unit of heat for one unit of energy input. In comparison, burning things for heat is less than perfectly efficient. One unit of energy in gives you less than one unit of heat out; less efficient, but historically cheaper because gas was less expensive per unit of heat than electricity.”
Crane says that heat pumps, on the other hand, give two to four units of useful heat for every unit of energy put in.
“They do this by collecting heat outside and moving that heat inside rather than pulling it from the electric or gas utility,” he says. “This is a huge improvement over electric resistance or burning gas. It has real potential for savings on energy bills.”
He explains that, in the past, heat pumps have been effective only within a narrow range of outdoor temperatures, and some people in Eastern Washington express concerns about how they will perform in the coldest winter temperatures. The technology has improved rapidly, and now there are systems with operational temperatures adequate for use in Climate Zone 5, which includes Spokane, Stevens, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Ferry, Whitman, Adams, Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Okanogan, Skamania, Walla Walla, and Yakima counties. Newer systems perform without a need for backup down to around 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and the temperature range is still growing.
In an SBCC hearing in early 2023, Skander Spies, a mechanical engineer at McKinstry Co. told the committee, “I regularly work on projects in climate zones 5 and 6 and have been pleased at the wide array of heat pumps now available, that perform well at cold temperatures. We’ve already seen meter data from installed heat pump systems in Eastern Washington perform with good efficiency, despite the cold weather.”
In other testimony before the committee, people expressed concerns about the expenses of installing heat pumps in new construction and retrofitting existing facilities. Architect and state Rep. Davina Duerr said, however, she believes the codes will drive equipment manufacturers to lower prices in much the same way that highly efficient windows came down in price after they were required by codes.
Mary Dye, who represents six counties in Eastern Washington, has concerns about the impact on food processing and manufacturing.
“The number of therms required for food processing is about 4 million therms of natural gas, and they have a 25-year plan for decarbonizing the gas grid.” Dye told the committee. “But the thing that comes to mind in this proposal is that when you decommission large portions of the natural gas system … then you also impact the ability to maintain a robust safe and healthy natural gas system.”
She also expressed concerns about the investments that local businesses have made in their plants, their plans for expansions and drought resiliency. She also raised concerns about the ability of the region to continue to be a robust part of the nation’s food supply, as the area produces apples, potatoes, and is the second largest producer of wine in the U.S. With $20.4 billion generated annually in her district from crop production and processing, her constituents’ reluctance to embrace this change is understandable. 
Changes in regulations often give pause to corporate executives. For businesses wondering how they will find the money for the proposed upgrades, there is Washington’s C-PACER program. This is the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy and Resiliency program that aims to provide commercial, industrial, agricultural, and multifamily buildings with cost-effective means to improve their facilities and bring them up to new standards.
In addition to energy-efficiencies, C-PACER loans also can be used to fund seismic upgrades, fire suppression, and other disaster-resiliency measures. C-PACER was adopted by Washington state in 2020 and is implemented on a county-by-county basis. It is available in Spokane County.
C-PACER doesn’t use any government funds. Each C-PACER loan is secured with a lien against the property, giving the lenders the confidence that leads to low interest rates, making the program affordable for building owners.
Between now and Oct. 29, there will be more information on how the code is being rewritten, and how legal matters progress. The SBCC will continue to work toward a code that withstands court challenges and balances the concerns of businesses with Washington’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2030.

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