Bellingham becomes third Washington state city to eliminate fossil fuels from new buildings

Published on February 22, 2022

On Monday, Feb. 7, the Bellingham City Council approved a citywide ordinance that will eliminate fossil fuel uses for space and water heating in new commercial and large multifamily buildings. This requires developers to install all-electric systems, including efficient electric heat pumps, for space and water heating instead of those that run on methane gas, a fossil fuel. This ordinance also includes better building envelope standards and requires these buildings be solar-ready.

This makes Bellingham the third city in Washington, after Seattle and Shoreline, to adopt this policy for new commercial and large multifamily developments. King County is in the process of crafting a similar ordinance and the County Council could take it up later in February, while the Olympia City Council will address enacting its own policy at an upcoming meeting in April.

Gas combustion creates over 40 percent of Bellingham’s direct carbon emissions, more than all the cars on its roads. On a statewide level, buildings are Washington’s fastest-growing source of carbon pollution, up more than 50 percent since 1990 due to gas and oil appliances like furnaces, water heaters and stoves.

Heat pumps are 2.2 to 4.5 times more efficient than an Energy Star gas furnace. They also provide air conditioning, an increasingly necessary part of buildings as the Pacific Northwest experiences more heat waves like the one in June 2021 that caused at least 112 deaths in Washington, and may have contributed to hundreds more across the Pacific Northwest.

“We can’t choose to fully electrify our rental units. But if all new apartment buildings are required to have highly efficient heat pumps, families like ours could mitigate and adapt to climate change better,” Bellingham Tenants Union member Tara Villalba said at the ordinance’s first public hearing in December.

“In this era of accelerating climate change impacts, we need easy, effective, and economical ways for our buildings to reduce emissions, protect against extreme temperatures and weather events, and safeguard us from indoor and outdoor sources of air pollution,” said Matt Krogh, SAFE Cities Campaign Director for and Bellingham resident. “The Bellingham City Council’s vote on Monday is an important step toward achieving this. This is an excellent opportunity to apply the benefits of efficient heat pump technology that provides inexpensive space heating and hot water, but also air conditioning in the summer and air filtration during wildfire smoke season. This is a blueprint for climate and public health that communities across Washington state can use.”

“It’s wonderful to see Bellingham tackling the community’s need for lower-impact and healthier buildings,” said Simon Vickery, RE Sources Climate & Energy Program Manager. “We can’t meet local climate goals if we keep digging the hole deeper with new fossil fuel-powered, inefficient space and water heating systems. The indoor places where we spend 90 percent of our time are a huge opportunity to curb climate-heating gas like methane, and Bellingham is setting an example for other cities to aspire to.”

Bellingham’s vote is a major milestone because it represents the first sustained, regional-level advancement of building electrification policies in the U.S. outside of California. This movement started in Berkeley in 2019, and has since spread to dozens of communities in the U.S. and Canada since then. This includes 54 cities and counties in California, as well as major cities like New York, Denver, and Vancouver, B.C.

Bellingham is part of a new wave of Pacific Northwest communities expanding the reach, impact, and benefits of this climate policy innovation. Here’s where they’ve been adopted or are actively under consideration in the Northwest:

  • Bellingham – Approved on Feb. 7, 2022
  • Shoreline – Approved in Dec. 2021
  • Seattle – Approved in Feb. 2021
  • Olympia – Under consideration, issue will return to City Council in April 2022
  • King County – Staff is developing policy, and could come before the County Council later in February
  • Eugene, OR – Staff is developing policy that transitions buildings to 100% clean electricity.

More information about RE Sources and SAFE Cities:

RE Sources is a nonprofit that promotes sustainable communities and protects the health of northwestern Washington’s people and ecosystems through application of science, education, advocacy and action.

SAFE Cities is a growing movement of neighbors, local groups, and elected officials phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking clean energy solutions to ensure a just transition. Already dozens of cities and counties across the US – and several more around the globe – have passed concrete policies to keep their communities SAFE from fossil fuels, build renewable energy infrastructure, and create good, long-term jobs.