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'Like What Fred Flintstone Would Be Doing': Burning Fossil Fuels In Buildings At Odds With Colorado's Emissions Goals

Hannes Flo
CC BY 2.0

On the surface, the Revive community in Fort Collins is pretty normal. Narrow sidewalks and mowed lawns create an aggressively suburban look. But the subdivision of 68 homes is on the cutting edge of sustainable development. That’s in part because of what is underground — or more accurately, what's not underground: natural gas pipelines.

Dan Schmidt and Lori Catalano moved into the development — Colorado’s first zero-emissions, all-electric housing project — about two years ago.

“We don't have natural gas here. Everything is powered by electricity,” Schmidt said.

The Revive homes are remarkable only because most buildings in the U.S. burn natural gas for much of their energy needs. But as electric grids in many places — including Colorado — become cleaner, electric energy is now considered the gold standard for reducing the carbon and methane footprint of the state’s building infrastructure.

A roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Back in January, Gov. Jared Polis rolled out a plan, years in the making, for addressing the state’s climate impact. The Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap calls for eliminating 90% of Colorado’s carbon emissions by 2050. It is the most ambitious plan the state has ever produced to reduce greenhouse gasses. The roadmap creates targets for greenhouse gas reduction by industry, but leaves specific strategies for achieving them open to ongoing rulemaking and legislative processes.

The Colorado Energy Office inventoried all of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Executive director Will Toor said that process illuminated priorities for emissions reductions efforts.

"What we saw was that there were four sectors that contribute the bulk of emissions: transportation, electricity generation, the oil and gas industry, and then fuel use in buildings and industry,” Toor said.

The buildings sector ranked fourth. But, according to Toor, they are a very important piece of the emissions reduction puzzle.

“In order to move towards that goal of 50% reduction by 2030 and 90% reduction by 2050, we really need to be reducing emissions from buildings,” he said. “Every time you burn something and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, (every time you) use fossil gas and some of that methane leaks into the atmosphere, you're having a long-term impact on the climate.”

Mike Henchen, a principal at the clean energy nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, pointed to the ambitious goals for buildings contained in the state's roadmap.

“Only one sector had to get 100% reduction in its emissions. And that was the buildings sector,” he said.

According to Henchen, buildings — both residential and commercial — account for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. That comes from burning fossil fuels on-site — mostly natural gas, sometimes propane and oil, in furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, ovens and clothes dryers.

For many years, natural gas was touted as cleaner than the fossil fuels powering electrical grids. Incentives still encourage homeowners to buy fuel-burning appliances with high-efficiency ratings. But according to Howard Geller, senior policy advisor to the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, as Colorado’s grid moves away from fossil fuels, and increasingly towards wind, solar and other renewable sources, we have turned a corner.

“We’re rapidly retiring the coal plants and over time moving towards 90% or more of the electricity coming from sources that don't have any emissions,” Geller said.

That process is set to accelerate. Utilities in the state have committed to reducing emissions by 80% or more by 2030. So, the future of buildings, Geller says, lies in electricity. It’s what people in his field call “beneficial electrification.”

In homes and commercial buildings, Geller says, beneficial electrification means the elimination of all fuel burning equipment: “We're talking about high-efficiency heat pumps for space heating. We're also talking about heat pump water heaters.”

Heat pumps run on electricity. They work by taking heat out of the ground or the air and bringing it into our buildings. In other words, heat pumps don’t generate heat, they just move it from one place to another.

The technology is not new: air conditioners and refrigerators have always worked that way. In fact, despite the name, heat pumps are also air conditioners when run in reverse. What is new is the high efficiency of heat pumps, and their ability to extract sufficient heat from the air, even on the coldest winter days.

Slow adoption

Electric-only homes are an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and have a minimal impact on the end user. But they have been slow to take off.

One hurdle, according to Toor, is the nature of the market for space and water heating.

“For many people, when they are buying new furnaces or new water heaters, it's not necessarily carefully planned out,” he said. “A furnace or water heater fails and needs to be replaced right then and there. And that's not necessarily conducive to look at a major change to the technology that we're using.”

Toor says that workforce shortages throws another twist in the road to beneficial electrification.

“Because heat pumps are relatively new, especially in cold weather climates like Colorado, we don't necessarily have the contractors and designers who are fully up to speed,” he said. “So it can be difficult to actually find folks to do the work. So I think workforce development is going to be an important part of this.”

A difficult nut to crack

Colorado lawmakers passed a series of bills during this year's legislative session addressing how buildings contribute to the state's overall greenhouse gas emissions. One piece of that legislation, sponsored by Democratic state Senate majority leader Steve Fenberg, is meant to encourage beneficial electrification.

“This is one that's been very difficult to tackle for years from a policy perspective,” Fenberg said.

According to Fenberg, the problem is more difficult than mandating decarbonization at the utility level because building ownership is so decentralized.

“This is getting individuals to make decisions in their spending and how they live,“ he said. “And that's not an easy thing to do in a short amount of time.“

That's why he sponsored Senate Bill 246, which requires public utilities to help their customers replace fuel-burning appliances with electric ones. That help would come in the form of financial incentives and consumer education, as well as workforce training.

“If you really take a step back, it is odd that we burn fuel in our homes,” Fenberg said. “It's like what Fred Flintstone would be doing. So, a lot of this is about education and awareness.”

The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.

A proven case

Some advocates of beneficial electrification would like state and local governments go a step further, mandating all-electric homes in building codes. But experts, like Carolyn Elam, the energy manager at the City of Boulder’s Climate Initiatives Department, say the efficacy of demand-side incentives, like the strategies included in SB-246, is well established.

In 2018, the city of Boulder launched its own campaign to encourage beneficial electrification in residential buildings. The campaign included an education component, through advertisements, as well as financial incentives.

“When you added in our utility incentives, (it was) on the order of $2,000 per adoption (of electric heat pumps),” Elam said.

Elam counts that campaign as a wild success. “We saw a 200% increase in adoption during that year where we were really active in our marketing,” she said.

But she also admits that demand side incentives won’t get us to the magnitude of change envisioned in the Greenhouse Gas Roadmap.

“What they're really designed to do is get some early adopters, start creating market demand, educating our contractor pools so that they can start to sell the technology to customers to get some familiarity with the technical challenges as we retrofit our existing buildings,” she explained.

The scale of necessary change is daunting.

“We've nominally modeled that around 85% of our residential homes need to be converted off of natural gas to hit our targets,” she said. “So we're talking about helping to drive people to either make early equipment changes or ensure that any time the equipment is replaced, we are no longer stranding it in gas investment.”

Beyond incentives, Elam says that regulatory requirements for converting homes to all-electric might be in Boulder’s future, although she says they are not yet prepared to adopt a mandate in the building code. “But I think to get the magnitude of change we need, we really have to accelerate (electrification) in the coming years,” she said.

Electrification is good business

Sue McFaddin is a green developer in Fort Collins, and the brains behind the Revive all-electric, zero-energy housing development where Dan Schmidt and Lori Catalano live.

McFaddin said she has a personal passion for sustainable construction, but she also says that skipping the gas line infrastructure was a boon for the development. For example, “we saved on our easements,” she said. “We would have had to dedicate 5 feet to the gas lines. And some of our townhouses couldn't have been built if we would have had a 5-foot easement.”

McFaddin sees Revive as a test case — she wanted to prove the concept of all-electric housing at scale. “We're like the little pebble in the pond. Sixty-eight homes isn't a whole big thing, but it has a big ripple effect. And since we can do it, other people know that they can do it now.”

And McFaddin’s buyers, like Schmidt and Catalano, say they appreciate their home’s energy efficiency. But Catalano says she doesn’t think much about the groundbreaking nature of her neighborhood, so she would hardly count herself a guinea pig testing an all-electric future.

“I don't think it changes how we live in this place at all — that it’s electric,” Catalano said. “Because everything is so functional, it doesn't require any extra thought. It works like any other home would.”

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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