A natural gas meter. (Getty Images)
Colorado is starting another chapter in what could be a future history book, “How We Decarbonized our Economy.”
In that book, electricity will be the easy part, at least the storyline through 80% to 90% reduction in emissions. That chapter is incomplete. We may not figure out 100% emissions-free electricity on a broad scale for a couple more decades.
This new chapter is about tamping down emissions associated with buildings. This plot line will be more complicated. Instead of dealing with a dozen or so coal plants, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in Colorado, maybe more. Most burn natural gas and propane to heat space and water.
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I would start this chapter on Aug. 1. Appropriately, that’s Colorado Day. It’s also the day that Xcel Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities will deliver the nation’s very first clean-heat plans to state regulators.
Those clean heat plans, required by a 2021 law, will tell state agencies how they intend to reduce emissions from the heat they sell to customers. The targets are 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030.
Wishing I had a sex scandal to weave into this chapter or at least something lurid, maybe a conspiracy or two. Think Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.”
Arguments between utilities and environmental advocates remain polite. Both sides recognize the need for new technologies. The disagreements lie in how best to invest resources that will pay off over time.
The environmental groups see great promise in electrification, particularly the use of air-source heat pumps. Heat pumps milk the heat out of even very cold air (or, in summer, coolness from hot air).
Good enough for prime time? I know of people in Avon, Fraser, and Gunnison who say heat-pumps deliver even on the coldest winter days.
Just think of all the natural gas lines buried under our streets. No wonder this transition will be difficult.
Xcel says that heat pumps have a role — but cautions that cold temperatures and higher elevations impair their performance by about 10% as compared to testing in coastal areas. They will need backup gas heat or electric resistance heating. After two winters of testing at the National Research Energy Laboratory in Golden, the testing of heat pumps will move to construction trailers set up in Leadville, Colorado’s Two-Mile City.
Xcel also frets about adding too much demand, too quickly, to the electrical grid.
Another, perhaps sharper argument has to do with other fuels that would allow Xcel to use its existing gas pipelines. Xcel and other gas utilities have put out a request for renewable natural gas, such as could be harvested from dairies. Xcel also plans to create hydrogen from renewable resources, blending it with natural gas. It plans a demonstration project using existing infrastructure in Adams County, northeast of Denver.
Jeff Lyng, Xcel Energy’s vice president for energy and sustainability policy, talks about the need for a “spectrum of different approaches.” It is far too early, Lyng told me, to take any possible technology off the table.
In a 53-page analysis, Western Resource Advocates sees a greater role for weatherization and other measures to reduce demand for gas. It sees renewable gas, in particular, but also hydrogen, as more costly and slowing the broad market transformation that is necessary.
“I think there’s a real tension that came out between different visions of a low-carbon future when it comes to the gas system,” Meera Fickling, an economist with WRA, told me.
We already have a huge ecosystem of energy, a huge investment in natural gas. Just think of all the natural gas lines buried under our streets. No wonder this transition will be difficult.
“It’s more difficult because everything you do in the gas sector now has a spillover effect in the electric sector,” says Jeff Ackermann, the former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. “Each of these sectors move in less than smooth, elegant steps. We don’t want people to fall off one and onto the other and get lost in the transition. There has to be sufficient energy of whatever type.”
Getting back to the book chapter. Colorado has nibbled around the edges of how to end emissions from buildings. With these proceedings, Colorado is moving headlong into this very difficult challenge. The foreplay is done. It’s action time.
Xcel talks about a decades-long transition and stresses the need to understand “realistic limitations in regard to both technologies and circumstances.”
Keep in mind, 25 years ago, it had little faith in wind and even less in solar.
Do you see a role for Jack Nicholson in hearings and so forth during the next year? I don’t. Even so, it promises to be a most interesting story.
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