Barbara Lux’s view from her Renton Hill home was veiled with dense smoke from the Bolt Creek fire burning 60 miles north.
“I think mother nature is crying out,” she said this week.
As the summers get hotter, winters get cooler and falls bring wildfire smoke in the Pacific Northwest, many of Lux’s neighbors have had to upgrade their HVAC systems.
But Lux, 74, still has a 200-gallon oil furnace in her basement. Her 1943 home is one of the more than 400,000 warmed by fossil fuels in King County, according to estimates from the county assessor’s office.
On Friday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced plans for a program that would provide “low-interest loans” for homeowners to switch to cleaner energy options.
It came on the heels of a proposal by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell to commit $2.6 million to helping low- and middle-income families transfer from oil and gas furnaces to “clean electric heat pumps.”
“The transportation sector is generally considered to be the single largest contributor” to greenhouse gas emissions, Constantine said. “But the built environment is very close behind.”
The built environment — single family homes, apartments and commercial buildings — accounts for nearly half of all annual global greenhouse gas emissions.
Using about $1.8 million in federal funds from a new infrastructure law, King County would create a loan loss reserve to back loans made by a private lender. The plan will be included in the budget proposal to be considered by the Metropolitan King County Council.
The program would be modeled after one that began in Snohomish County a decade ago.
Snohomish County homeowners who want to ditch their furnaces can apply for “Energy Smart” loans through Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union. The program is backed by a $600,000 loan loss reserve from Snohomish County and provides money for homeowners to transition away from fossil fuels, add solar panels and increase their insulation.
It has doled out over $23 million in loans for energy efficient upgrades since it began in 2012, said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. Currently, the lowest interest rate is 4% for a maximum term of 15 years. The county’s loan loss reserve allows the credit union to “be more inclusive,” providing loans for low-income households and people with poor credit history.
Snohomish County says the furnaces replaced are the equivalent of taking more than 1,100 cars off the road.
“I think most people like the idea of being more green and lowering their impact on the environment,” said Michael Pompeo, a C.M. Heating employee, “as long as the ticket isn’t too much higher.”
It’s no surprise to Pompeo when the Everett-based service company arrives at a home with a gas furnace in the basement. Every home he’s rented in Snohomish County over the past decade has been warmed by fossil fuels.
Electric heat pumps range from about $4,000 to $7,000, not including labor, according to Fischer Heating and Air.
Lux, the Renton homeowner, put less than $10,000 down on her home when she bought it in 1993. Today, that’s less than it would cost for her to replace her immense red oil tank with an electric heat pump.
“I basically live on my social security income,” Lux said. Replacing a functioning oil furnace doesn’t necessarily fit her budget. Even with the incentive, she’s not ready to move to an electric heat pump.
She’s planning to continue paying the $600 to $1,300 oil delivery every six months to keep her home warm. She relies on a grayish wooden ceiling fan, and open windows — when there’s not smoke in the air — to keep her home cool in the summer.
King County is hoping this effort entices others.
While developing the heat pump loan program, King County Director of Climate and Energy Initiatives Rachel Brombaugh said leaders heard residents want clean and efficient heating and cooling systems.
If the federal dollars were to be used for direct subsidies, it would likely cover less than 100 home conversions. Using the loan loss reserve, the program is expected to generate up to $50 million in loans, Constantine said.