- Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on Wednesday signed an executive order advancing a Green New Deal for the city.
- A key element is to transition municipal buildings away from using fossil fuels. All new and substantially altered city-owned buildings will not be able to use fossil fuels such as natural gas for heating, cooling, cooking or other purposes.
- Strategies for using electricity instead of fossil fuels must be submitted by June 1 for buildings to be completed or altered during the 2021 or 2022 budget year. An interdepartmental team will develop a strategy by January 2021 to electrify all existing city buildings.
The goals in Seattle's Green New Deal mirror those in the city's climate action plan. A primary aim is to reduce building and vehicle emissions citywide. By eliminating fossil fuels starting with municipal buildings, the city leads by example and encourages the private and residential sectors to follow suit.
And it could have a big impact. The Sierra Club said in a statement that buildings are responsible for 35% of the city's emissions. It called this move a "necessary first step" away from fossil fuels that should lead to further action in the future.
Durkan's executive order advances the Seattle City Council's August resolution working toward a Green New Deal for the city. That resolution expressed support for limiting new fossil fuel infrastructure construction and decreasing residential fossil fuel use. Durkan praised the council's action at the time.
Council members discussed equity for low-income and other marginalized populations before passing the resolution. Equity is a central tenet of the resolution as it addresses at length the need to have a well thought out and gradual plan for reducing fossil fuel use to reduce the impact on citizens.
One concern was the economic impact of lost jobs for all those who work for or are dependent on the fossil fuel industry. That includes directly employed natural gas industry employees or those such as mechanics who work on gas-fueled vehicles. A goal in the resolution is to expand green energy jobs and invest in job training to transition affected workers to other positions.
Another equity concern is that in many cases, natural gas is the most readily available and cheapest fuel option in an area. Requiring natural gas customers to find other ways to heat their homes or replace gas-fueled stoves and other cooking appliances could become costly and cause hardships if not executed properly. Electric and natural gas utility CenterPoint Energy's website says "natural gas prices are consistently two to three times lower than electric prices."
U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data shows more U.S. citizens use natural gas than electricity for their primary home heating source, at 47% and 36%, respectively. Heating choices vary based on factors including the region of the U.S. and the age of the home — natural gas heat sources dominated in residences built before 1970, while those built after that time are nearly evenly split between natural gas and electricity. The number of people using electric heat slowly ticked up in recent years while natural gas proportionately ticked down.
Other cities recently have moved forward with plans to reduce or eliminate the use of natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings to achieve sustainability goals. Last fall, San Jose, CA became the largest city to ban natural gas infrastructure from being installed in many new residential buildings. Berkeley, CA passed a ban on natural gas in new low-rise residential buildings that took effect this month.
As discussion intensifies about cities eschewing fossil fuel use in buildings in favor of electricity, city leaders must keep in mind an important consideration: how their city's electricity is generated. Much domestic electricity is generated from oil, gas or coal, and thus buildings still rely on fossil fuels for power.
EIA shows that in 2018, 79% of U.S. energy production came from fossil fuels, a figure that has held steady for more than a decade. Each city uses a different blend of resources to make electricity, and in U.S. regions natural gas, coal or nuclear are the predominant sources while renewables lag. However, Seattle's mix is unique: Its utility, Seattle City Light, reports the city's primary source is hydroelectricity, constituting 91% of the mix, nuclear is 4% and coal and natural gas each are 1%.
Even though renewables currently only make up a small proportion of U.S. electricity, EIA estimates they make up about 25% globally, and it projects that number will jump to 49% by 2050. Domestically, eliminating fossil fuels for heating, cooling and cooking can help move the needle on lowering emissions even in places where fossil fuels still are used to generate electricity.
Besides the new executive order, Durkan has taken numerous steps to improve Seattle's sustainability and reduce carbon emissions. She proposed a tax on heating oil providers to encourage a transition from oil heaters to electric heat. Durkan supported a measure the city council passed requiring all new buildings with off-street parking to have electric vehicle charging infrastructure to encourage low- and no-emission vehicle adoption.
And in 2018, she signed an executive order to reduce the city's municipal vehicle fleet by 10%. That move shows the city leading by example on sustainability, just as with the new executive order pertaining to city-owned buildings.