Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Natural gas ban portends unintended consequences


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The Washington state Building Code Council is considering a ban on natural gas for heating in all new residential construction, having recently approved such a restriction on the fossil fuel in commercial construction and most multifamily residential projects.

While the noble purpose of the move would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change, the haste at which the board is moving to ban natural gas in new construction could bring about unintended consequences that will offset environmental benefits. Specifically, the ban likely would raise the cost of electricity and further strain the power-grid infrastructure.

And on a more philosophical level, one could argue that such restrictions should be referred as recommendations to the state Legislature, which is held accountable by voters, rather than as final decisions by a governor-appointed board.

Regardless, the board should give more weight to warnings that its policy decisions could have harmful effects that reach far beyond builders, developers, and buyers of new construction.

Officials with Spokane-based Avista Corp. say the grid isn’t ready for the pace of electric conversion anticipated from such a ban and will require additional investment in infrastructure above and beyond the company’s current plan to cut emissions ahead of other state mandates.

The natural gas ban for new commercial and multifamily construction will begin in July 2023. Jason Thackston, Avista’s environmental compliance officer and senior vice president of energy resources, says, as of last week, Avista is hearing from the SBCC that the panel is proposing to use the same timeline for removal of natural gas from all new residential construction.

That ban likely would impact all electric customers’ bills and potentially the system reliability as energy demand shifts to electricity. That shift also likely would require new power plants—beyond additional wind turbines and solar generation, Thackston says.

The distribution system that delivers electricity from power plants to homes and businesses also would need additional investment beyond what would normally be planned for ordinary growth in energy use, he says.

Also, the ban doesn’t contemplate alternative natural gas fuels that may have a lower carbon footprint than traditional natural gas. For example, Avista has been pursuing opportunities to reduce the greenhouse gas content of natural gas through renewable products and exploring hydrogen as a possible blending fuel.

The ban, rather, is focused primarily on promoting electric heating, specifically favoring use of heat pumps in new construction. That technology, however, can be unreliable in Eastern Washington during the coldest days of the year, and it needs to mature and drop in price so it can be implemented affordably for electricity consumers, Thackston says. Otherwise, families may have to seek other sources of heat, which could range from burning wood to plugging in inefficient space heaters.

“We may end up with a scenario that is less efficient in the delivery of energy and potentially has higher greenhouse gas emissions than we have today with customers using natural gas and electricity in the right applications,” Thackston says.

That’s the message that the SBBC needs to hear to avoid taking hasty action with potential unintended consequences that could negate the benefits it seeks, at a great cost to electricity consumers and the system it would appear to favor.

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