April 15, 2024 6:39 pm
Search
Close this search box.

Opinion

Electrify Colorado’s buildings faster

Credit: iStock

by Sammy Herdman, Colorado Newsline
March 5, 2024

Over the past few decades, Colorado’s temperatures have increased (about 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit on average), precipitation has dropped (by 20-22% in some parts of the state), and heat waves, wildfires and droughts are more frequent and severe.

These impacts underscore the importance of Colorado’s updated Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap. And although the state is still not on track to reach its climate goals, the new roadmap does delve deeper into an emission source mostly overlooked in the first version: buildings, which create an impressive 20% of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The technology to eliminate direct emissions from buildings is already available and effective in Colorado. Despite skepticism of new technology, and propaganda from oil and gas proponents, electric water heaters and heat pumps (cooling and heating systems) are gaining global popularity. Replacing gas-powered furnaces, boilers, and stoves with electric appliances eliminates the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, gas explosions, and asthma-inducing indoor air quality, while saving homeowners and renters money — up to $600 every winter. Electric appliances also reduce indirect emissions from buildings’ electricity usage because 37% of Colorado’s grid is powered by renewable energy. Despite the overwhelming advantages of electric building appliances, the uptake by Colorado consumers is slow; only 3% of Coloradans had air-source heat pumps in 2022.

A slew of statutory and administrative regulations designed to chip away at Colorado’s building emissions have been implemented over the past few years. That includes the Energy Performance for Buildings law, and subsequent agency rulemaking, which will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from about 8,000 large buildings by 20% by 2030. Another recent regulation requires new construction to be solar and electric-ready, but only after municipalities update their building codes. There are also state grants, financing mechanisms, tax credits and millions of dollars of incentives available to improve the efficiency and install electric appliances in commercial, residential and industrial buildings. Paired with the dozens of federal, regional, municipal, and utility incentive programs available in Colorado, developers and homeowners can electrify their buildings for a deal. According to the state’s newest roadmap, soon state agencies will begin evaluating on-bill repayment programs for electric appliances and develop a strategic plan for electrification of buildings.

Despite the newfound attention building emissions are receiving from the Legislature, state agencies, and the new roadmap, most of the policies lean towards nonbinding, optional and incremental changes. This slow and optional approach places the onus on individual consumers to solve a communal problem, and is unduly optimistic.

For example, when a gas furnace comes to the end of its lifecycle, a consumer could either buy a new one, or consult an electrician, research available incentive programs, and then install a heat pump. Heat pumps are safer, healthier, often more efficient, and always more sustainable, but buying a gas furnace is easier. For consumers, gas-powered appliances are the default. Policies to flip that status quo would place the state in a better position to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Some municipalities in Colorado have taken the lead in making electric appliances the default. Crested Butte and Lafayette have banned natural gas in new construction, so almost all new commercial and residential buildings must use electricity instead of gas for heating, hot water and appliances. Boulder, Golden and Aspen are considering similar policies. New commercial and multifamily residential buildings in Denver can no longer install gas furnaces and water heaters. These policies are a promising step forward, but natural gas bans may face legal challenges in the future. A natural gas ban in Berkeley, California, was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit. In Colorado, the fossil fuel industry seems to be working towards preventing natural gas bans via a ballot initiative.

Colorado leaders could avoid the potential legal mire associated with natural gas bans by instead mandating new buildings be equipped with electric appliances, setting the default appliance option to electric. Crucially, policies must also begin addressing existing buildings in Colorado, perhaps with sales bans or high taxes on gas appliances, so that when furnaces and gas water heaters reach the end of their lifespan (20-30 years), they are replaced with electric appliances.

An incremental, purely incentive-based approach to reducing building emissions isn’t sufficient for Colorado to live up to its agreement to accelerate the transition to zero-emission residential buildings. More ambitious policies are needed, quickly, to protect the health of Colorado’s residents and climate.

This story is republished from CO Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.