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Mayor Durkan Signs Legislation Making Seattle’s Building Energy Code One of Strongest on Climate in the Nation

Updates to energy code would require all new commercial and large multifamily buildings to use clean electricity for space and water heating and maximize building efficiency and on site renewables

On Monday, February 8, Mayor Jenny A. Durkan signed into law new updates to Seattle’s building energy code, which will eliminate fossil fuels for most space and water heating, increase energy efficiency, and improve access to onsite renewables like solar. After transmitting to City Council in December 2020, Seattle City Council voted unanimously to pass the proposed updates on February 1. The code covers all new commercial buildings and large multifamily buildings above three stories and will go into effect on March 15.  

“Burning fossil fuels pollutes the air we breathe both indoors and out, especially for children, seniors, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. Seattle’s buildings are one of the largest and fastest growing source of this pollution,” said Mayor Jenny A. Durkan. “Seattle’s energy code is not only among the strongest in the nation, it prioritizes protecting the health of our most impacted populations and is a critical mechanism to support our City’s transition to a clean energy future.”  

Building energy use is responsible for more than one-third of Seattle’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, with 86% of these building sector emissions resulting directly from fracked gas. Without the code changes, the City expects that greenhouse gas emissions from buildings would be up to 10% higher by 2050.  

“Seattle’s energy code update will continue the city’s longstanding place as one of the strongest in the nation for energy efficiency,” said Nathan Torgelson, Director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. “We expect these code changes to result in cleaner and more efficient buildings, making this a better overall investment for building owners and a healthier and more comfortable environment for people living and working in these buildings.” 

The energy code updates do not apply to single family homes or low-rise multifamily homes, as the state prohibits city amendments to the residential energy code. Key changes for commercial and large multifamily buildings through the new code include:  

  • Eliminates all gas and most electric resistance space heating systems  
  • Eliminates gas water heating in large multifamily buildings and hotels  
  • Improves building exteriors to improve energy efficiency and comfort  
  • Creates more opportunities for solar power  
  • Requires electrical infrastructure necessary for future conversion of any gas appliances in multifamily buildings 

The final updates resulted from months of stakeholder engagement with the City’s Department of Construction and Inspections and Office of Sustainability and Environment. A broad coalition of environmental advocates, labor, public health, and affordable housing advocates came together and spoke to the benefits these updates will bring at a series of council hearings in late January.  

“The updates to the Seattle Energy Code are a prime example of how we can confront the climate crisis while creating good-paying union jobs and boosting our local economy” said Nicole Grant, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of MLK Labor. “As an electrician, I know how much work can be done to make buildings more efficient. Starting this work now will pay off 10-fold down the road.”  

“While its no longer possible to legitimately deny that we have an affordable housing crisis, it becomes hard to address this challenge if we don’t have healthy communities within which to make those homes real” said Marty Kooistra, Executive Director, Housing Development Consortium. “Simply stated, we have to care about our planet and this action on energy code is one more step in our journey to get us to achieving stewardship of our collective home for future generations.”  

Updating the commercial building energy code is one of multiple strategies the City is pursuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the buildings sector. Since 2017, the City has helped approximately 600 households convert from dirty, inefficient heating oil to clean, energy-efficient heat pumps, with the goal of eliminating heating oil use by 2028. The City also requires Building Tune-Ups to help building owners find operational efficiencies and low- and no-cost fixes that improve building performance and reduce building energy use 10-15% on average. Seattle’s largest buildings have completed 450 tune-ups to date, reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the city and saving money on their energy bills. 

“The buildings built today will last generations. Strengthening our energy code means new buildings will be efficient and climate resilient from the start and avoid costly retrofits” said Amy Wheeless, Senior Policy Associate at the NW Energy Coalition and Co-Chair of Shift Zero. “Seattle is leading the way for the Northwest, and we look forward to even more action on climate policies.”  

The City of Seattle is receiving technical support in developing the energy code from the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. Seattle is one of 25 cities participating in the Climate Challenge, a program to significantly deepen and accelerate their efforts to tackle climate change and promote a sustainable future for their residents.  

“Mayor Durkan and Seattle’s City Council have demonstrated tremendous leadership today in the fight against climate change,” said Kelly Shultz, program lead for the American Cities Climate Challenge at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Reducing the use of fossil fuels in buildings doesn’t just reduce emissions, it also improves air quality and lowers energy bills, which is important for all residents and particularly low-income communities who are hardest hit by climate and health risks. Through the American Cities Climate Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies is proud to support cities like Seattle in implementing effective and innovative climate change solutions that are keeping communities on track to offer a cleaner, healthier, and more equitable future. ”  

“Seattle is taking a big step forward in demonstrating how cities can lead the transition to pollution-free buildings,” said Elizabeth Stampe, a city strategist with the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. “By powering new commercial buildings and large apartment and condo complexes with efficient appliances that run on clean electricity, we can reduce air pollution and utility bills at the same time. Seattle’s climate leadership will hopefully inspire more cities to make the switch from polluting fossil gas to efficient, electric buildings that are healthier, safer, and more affordable.”  For more information about the energy code updates, including the code language, visit the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections energy code web page.