Colorado climate advocates push lawmakers to prioritize all-electric buildings

Gas-powered heating, cooking make up 10% of Colorado’s annual greenhouse gas emissions

The interior of a gas furnace in a Denver home. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

One of the most effective ways to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions generated by Colorado’s 2.2 million households isn’t some far-off piece of future technology — it’s one that’s installed in about a quarter of homes in the state already.

“I’m confident that any new house in Colorado can be built all-electric,” Mike Henchen, a principal with energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, told reporters this week. “People will be comfortable, costs will be in line with or saving money compared to natural gas, and definitely compared to propane, if you’re in a rural area.”

That’s the conclusion of a new report released on Tuesday by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and Environment Colorado, as well as previous RMI research, which found that in cities across the country, all-electric heating and cooking appliances are more cost-effective than gas-powered alternatives in new buildings. In some cases, even the high costs of retrofitting existing heating systems can be recouped over the long run through the savings afforded by electric technologies.

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“Today’s electric technologies can meet nearly all our home and business energy needs — and often do so at a competitive cost and with a fraction of the pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion,” the report’s authors found.

In Colorado, the report found that building electrification could lead to net reduction of 8 million tons in annual carbon emissions by 2050. That’s the equivalent of taking 1.7 million of today’s cars off the road.

“Repowering our homes and businesses is a critical and important strategy to tackling climate change, and can make a really big difference over the next couple of decades,” said Danny Katz, CoPIRG’s executive director. “I think we deserve systems that heat our homes, provide us with hot water, and run our appliances without producing dangerous emissions that can threaten our safety and health.”

All-electric heating and cooking appliances are more cost-effective than gas-powered alternatives in new buildings.

Some Colorado lawmakers want the state’s Public Utilities Commission to begin taking a more active role in the transition to curbing natural gas use, including through “beneficial electrification.” House Bill 21-1238, sponsored by State Sen. Chris Hansen and Rep. Tracey Bernett, would beef up the PUC’s ability to require large for-profit utilities like Xcel Energy to curb heating-sector emissions through existing demand-side management programs.

“It’s going to take decades to decarbonize buildings,” Bernett told her fellow lawmakers in an April 8 hearing before the House Energy and Environment Committee. “This is just a start — it’s important to start now.”

‘Full decarbonization’

Colorado is charting a path towards an overall greenhouse gas emissions cut of 90% by 2050, as spelled out in a “roadmap” released by state officials earlier this year. Henchen noted that the buildings sector is alone in being targeted for “full decarbonization” in Colorado by 2050; while other sectors like electricity and transportation are projected to still be the source of minimal levels of emissions by that date, the state’s roadmap calls for building emissions to be completely zeroed out.

“It will take a huge effort to get there,” Henchen said. “And we’ve got opportunities now, with policies and regulations, to get started.”

Compared to clean-energy alternatives in some other major emissions sectors, like vehicle transportation, clean-building technologies already have a head start. As of 2019, more than half a million homes in Colorado had electric heating systems installed, according to census data.

The vast majority of existing Colorado homes and buildings, however, are still heated with natural gas, propane or other fossil fuels, which release about 10 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year — about 10% of the state’s annual total. With new technologies like cold-weather heat pumps and induction cooktops having matured, climate advocates say there’s no longer any reason that newly-built homes and businesses should continue using gas-powered appliances.

“The technologies have been consistently improving over the years,” Katz said. “Whether it’s electric water heaters, or electric space heating, or electric appliances like stoves — induction stovetops right now can heat your food faster and cleaner than a gas system.”

Climate activists’ push for all-electric buildings has prompted a backlash from the oil and gas industry, in Colorado and beyond. Last year, industry group Protect Colorado gathered signatures for a ballot measure that sought to bar local governments from banning or limiting natural gas connections in buildings, before ultimately dropping the effort as part of a deal struck with Gov. Jared Polis. A similar bill backed by Republican state Rep. Dan Woog was defeated by a House committee last month.

In general, buildings are regulated at the local level through municipal building codes, but advocates say that achieving the transition will require state-level action, both through regulating utilities and by establishing a baseline of building energy standards. In 2019, state lawmakers passed a bill mandating that Colorado local governments, when updating their codes, must adopt one of the three most recent versions of the International Energy Conservation Code.

In Denver, officials are aiming to achieve all-electric building requirements for most new homes and businesses by 2027, though they have stopped short of calling for a ban on gas. Climate advocates stress that while the overall transition to electrified buildings will take decades, the need to stop installing gas-powered systems in newly-constructed buildings is urgent, since the expected life cycles of furnaces, water heaters and other appliances can be up to 30 years or more.

“We know that we have an opportunity with every building we construct — to choose to add to the fossil-fuel economy and contribute to climate change, or not,” Henchen said. “And we can be can be making the decision to build clean buildings every time.”

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