On February 7, Bellingham’s City Council unanimously voted to require all new commercial construction and residential structures of more than three stories to electrify their water and room heating needs.
This means that soon, in many local buildings, natural gas will be a thing of the past.
There are caveats, of course. While natural gas water heaters and furnaces won’t be allowed in these specific new builds, gas kitchen appliances and fireplaces will still be okay. The ordinance doesn’t apply to any residential buildings less than three stories, either, or existing commercial buildings.
The new changes are part of the city’s Climate Action Task Force road map to meet major climate and carbon targets by 2030.
“The major source of carbon emissions was coming from buildings here in the city, so moving away from fossil fuels and moving towards electrification is another step towards becoming carbon neutral sooner than later,” says Irena Lambrou, a Realtor at John L. Scott Bellingham.
The new requirement will take effect in August, and although it doesn’t necessarily affect them, the recent change has both local homeowners and Realtors thinking about the energy efficiency of their homes.
Lambrou, for instance, has made electrification changes in the home she shares with her husband. The older house, which once was partially unheated with bare bones insulation, now has several ductless heat pumps. In addition to doubling as air conditioning units, the pumps are highly efficient and save money on both electricity and heating.
Their home also has ceiling-installed radiant heat panels in some areas, as well as LED lights and an energy-efficient dishwasher.
Why Go Efficient?
The benefits of creating an energy-efficient home, whether you’re buying, selling, or staying put, are many, Lambrou says.
Cheaper or non-existent utility bills, of course, are generally everybody’s favorite.
“When it does come up on a home, I think it’s an added benefit that people are really excited about,” she says of energy-efficient listings. “Especially when the seller can say, ‘Hey, my utility bill is $7 or nothing a month.’ People get really excited about that. Unfortunately, right now, electricity is seeing an increase in pricing. But if you have solar, generally speaking, utility bills are low.”
Lambrou says buyers are usually stoked about homes with cool, energy efficient features. While low inventories and a competitive market make these features low on most Bellingham buyers’ lists of concerns, she says some people have efficiency questions for her after moving into a new home.
From a societal and moral perspective, doing your part to lower carbon emissions and combat the potential effects of climate change is also a noble cause, Lambrou adds.
And, of course, making a change away from natural gas erases both possible health and safety concerns. Lambrou says more and more scientific data is pointing to potential health concerns due to the way natural gas can diminish indoor air quality.
On the safety side, Bellingham has an average of several emergency calls a week over potential gas issues. If you don’t have gas, it’s obviously difficult to have a gas leak that could lead to dangerous fumes or explosions.
On the Right Path
While it’s likely more local changes towards a carbon-neutral future will be in store, Lambrou says she doesn’t see requirements for new or even older single-family homes around the corner.
Any changes will likely be suggested rather than required and encouraged through financial incentives like rebates and subsidies for energy efficient equipment. A friendly nudge towards increased solar panel usage in Bellingham featured many of these rebates and subsidies several years ago.
Lambrou also says that Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood is also working on a Climate Action Fund to provide funding of further efficiency transitions for those of whom affordability is most an issue.
“I think they’re [working] to figure out a way, maybe with federal and state funds, to help people,” she says. “I don’t foresee any forcing anyone to do these conversions.”
Bellingham isn’t the only city to make these kinds of changes. In Washington, the City of Subdued Excitement joins Shoreline and Seattle in enacting similar electrification requirements for larger new buildings.
In places like Ithaca, New York, things are going even further: in late 2021, the city’s common council approved a plan to electrify all of its public and private buildings — about 6,000 in total — by 2030.
And if places in upstate New York can decide to electrify, then Bellingham certainly can, too.
“I think we’re on the right path,” Lambrou says. “Not too far in the future, I think we may see state mandates about electrifying homes and such. So, I’m glad that we’re getting ahead of the game.”
Watch Lambrou’s recent Bellingham Real Estate Podcast conversation with John L. Scott’s Paul Balzotti for more thoughts on energy efficiency and Bellingham moving to electric.