Cost, comfort emphasized as building electrification takes off in Colorado

Allen Best, Nov 2019

Boulder, Colorado.

A Boulder campaign is making a pitch to residents that they can save money and breathe easier by switching from gas. 

Comfort, not climate, is the central message of a campaign in Colorado to persuade homeowners to switch from natural gas to electricity for heating and other indoor purposes.

The joint program sponsored by Boulder and Boulder County, called Comfort 365, may provide insights for state legislators as they consider how to drive down emissions from the built environment in order to achieve the sobering goal of wringing carbon out of 90% of the state’s economy by 2040.

“For us to meet our carbon reduction goals, we have to take as many of the fossil fuels as possible out of the equation, and that includes natural gas and propane,” said David Hatchimonji, manager of Boulder County’s EnergySmart Residential Program.

Boulder County, which stretches from cornfields of the Great Plains to the Continental Divide, set a goal of 90% reduction by midcentury. Boulder, the county’s largest city and a partner in the program, aims for 80%. 

“Why ‘Comfort 365’ as opposed to ‘Carbon Reduction 365’ or ‘Save the World 365?’ We want to convey that the technology can result in a much more comfortable home and, all things considered, a safer home in that you don’t have the air quality issues associated with carbon monoxide and other contaminants that come from natural gas use,” Hatchimonji said.

“We want folks to save energy, to be able to have a positive impact on their environment. Their families can be warm in winter and cool in the summer with a heat pump.”

This messaging fits in with the ambitions of state Rep. Chris Hansen, a key architect of Colorado’s sweeping energy legislation in the last session. He says he may sponsor a bill that would require builders to offer homebuyers clean-heating options, such as electric water heaters. Colorado in 2016 required builders to offer a solar-ready option. 

Colorado expects to dramatically reduce emissions from power generation during the next decade as coal units continue to close — at least three and possibly more by 2025 — and adoption of renewables accelerates. Transportation is poised to become the largest source of emissions, but Colorado has also taken steps to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles.

Buildings would then become the largest source of carbon emissions, which is why Hansen believes action is needed now. He’s met with representatives of the Colorado Association of Home Builders and other groups to talk about potential legislation.

In September, Hansen and other members of an interim legislative energy committee toured a 27-unit affordable housing project under construction in Basalt. Hansen said one takeaway from that tour of Basalt Vista was that comfort need not be sacrificed. A second takeaway: it won’t ding homeowners with higher utility bills. Just the opposite. The evidence is of “drastically lower energy bills.”

“The key to Colorado being successful in this transition is that we can’t ask people to lower their quality of life,” Hansen said. “We need to do things that people can be comfortable with, so their homes will be comfortable — that they will have hot water in the morning. We are not taking anything away. We are just asking them for the functions to be fulfilled in ways that are more environmentally friendly.”

The Colorado Energy Office has commissioned a study that Will Toor, the executive director, said will quantify the technical and economic potential of building electrification in Colorado and also explore the range of policy options to support electrification. 

Environmental groups are said to be mulling their options, unsure where to push in the upcoming legislative session. “We are generally for building electrification incentives, but we are also cautious about state mandates on local governments,” said Tom Easley, policy researcher for Colorado Communities for Climate Action, which represents 29 jurisdictions that collectively have one-seventh of the state’s population. “We need to be careful about that.”

Laurent Meillon, of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, expects minimal opposition from powerful investor-owned utilities to building electrification. They make little money on natural gas sales, unlike electricity. Tri-State Generation and Transmission and other utilities have formed a chapter of the National Beneficial Electrification League. 

A new study will also likely play into the discussion. A study commissioned by Community Energy found that Colorado can substantially overachieve the greenhouse gas emissions reduction required by a new law through 2050 by electrifying other sectors and carbon-constraining the electricity system, shutting down its remaining coal plants sooner rather than later. The study by Chris Clack’s Vibrant Clean Energy found this deep decarbonization scenario will result in economy-wide emission reduction of 70% by 2040 as compared to 2005 levels.

The shift from gas to electricity in Colorado is reflected in policies of the Carbondale-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency. The group encourages the shift to low-carbon energy solutions in the Aspen area. 

“We don’t even offer a rebate for [high-efficiency] gas hot water heaters this year,” said Mona Newton, the director. Instead, CORE offers $2,500 rebates for fuel switching to electricity. Cheap and plentiful natural gas has discouraged widespread adoption, but workforce expertise with components of all-electric houses must improve, she said.

In the Denver suburb of Arvada, developer Norbert Klebl pushes the health benefits of the 20 all-electric homes he has completed in the Geos neighborhood. “Putting gas into the home is unhealthy,” he said. “It burns up oxygen and also produces carbon monoxide.”

Klebl also talks cost savings. Geos homes cost 8% more up front but save between $1,200 and $2,400 annually on utility bills, he said. And with Xcel Energy, the electrical supplier, promising 80% clean energy by 2030, he can make a claim for vastly reduced climate impacts.

Golden-based architect Peter Ewers decided this year to make all-electric buildings the sole focus of his practice. “We have to stop locking natural gas into the lifetimes of these buildings,” he said at a recent Colorado Renewable Energy Society meeting. Strides in technology have improved, and he believes all-electric buildings will be the rule, not the exception, by 2030.

Most impressive may be plans in Pueblo, Colorado’s steel mill city. There, no natural gas lines will be laid into North Vista, a subdivision authorized to develop 4,860 units. Mobilization of earth-moving equipment at the site of the first 162-unit component, called North Vista Highlands, began this month. The builder, Rod Stambaugh, instigated the no-natural gas plan for the smaller component, but master developer David Resnick has since made the decision for the larger project. He cites health as driving the decision, not climate.

In Boulder, the university city of 107,000 people, the city’s climate action plan targets homes. “Because the technology is there today, it is easier to retrofit residential homes than large commercial buildings,” said Carolyn Elam, energy manager for Boulder’s climate initiatives. “As technology continues to mature, then it will be more conducive to retrofit the commercial building stock.”

Boulder both pushes and pulls building electrification. The city will pay up to $250 for installation of air-source heat pumps and another $250 for electric heat pump water heaters. The city has also been promoting building electrification through social media, direct mail, and in 2018 in TV advertising conducted in a partnership with Mitsubishi, a manufacturer of air-source heat pumps, the crucial technology for electrification of space heating.

The city also has a mandate that new or reconstructed houses larger than 5,000 square feet be net-zero. Meeting that requires a combination of design, insulation and electric space heating. It can only be achieved by eliminating the use of natural gas.

“Since our code went into effect [in 2017], about half of the homes constructed in Boulder have gone to air- and ground-source heat pumps,” Elam said. “And in 2020, our goal will be to lower the net-zero requirement to 3,000 square feet. That means that almost all new homes will have with electric HVAC [heating, ventilating and air conditioning].” 

Studies by two Boulder-based groups, Rocky Mountain Institute and Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, document the cost advantages of building electrification in new construction. But Boulder has almost no new subdivisions. Older houses get rebuilt annually.

Retrofitting the building stock will be a “much larger challenge for us,” Elam said. Retrofitting an existing house that is not otherwise being remodeled to replace a furnace that burns natural gas becomes prohibitively expensive for lower and middle-income residents, she said. 

More and more early adopters are making the switch, but to push out natural gas even more Boulder has been looking at alternative models, such as used in Europe, where the utility owns the HVAC equipment and is responsible for the replacement. The cost goes into the rate structure, to be paid out in a 20-year term. 

California also offers a possible model. The state’s $1 billion budget for energy efficiency is becoming available for building electrification. 

Newton, of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, has been in the energy sector for 25 years, long enough to see swings, at first against natural gas and then in favor of it. “This time, I think the pendulum will stay on the electrification side,” she said. “We are not picking winners and losers. We are just picking the technology that makes sense right now to be powered by renewable energy.”


To get to net zero, cities need to think wider than buildings

Solutions to climate change may lie in some old-fashioned values, like building strong communities, relying on neighbors and believing that design matters.

Credit: Wikimedia; Nelson48

Tom Sieniewicz, Nov. 15, 2019

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Tom Sieniewicz, Partner at NBBJ Design, AICP, AIA.

The City of Boston recently made headlines for an ambitious plan to mandate all new city-owned buildings to be carbon neutral, part of a wider plan for the city to achieve net zero status by 2050.

The attention on this announcement and the framing of net zero makes sense. Finally, there is a sustainability goal for the city that people could fully grasp and get behind, a readily understandable and appealing arithmetic proposition that the city’s buildings will eventually produce as much energy as they use.

The challenge, of course, isn’t in getting people excited about the prospect of going net zero — fervor around the term has grown with the number of buildings that meet the standard. The challenge is preparing cities for what it’s going to take to actually make net zero a realistic possibility. 

An ambitious goal like Boston’s requires a total overhaul in how we think about sustainability at every level of impact. The changes must go beyond recycling, using LED light bulbs, and even constructing net zero buildings, since individual buildings or projects can only go so far. Cities will have to embrace bigger, district-wide or neighborhood-scale solutions that create change at a scale that will make a difference.

The city already has a good model for what district energy looks like in practice with the Kendall Station power plant in Cambridge. For years, waste heat was dumped from the cooling processes of the plant’s generating turbines into the Charles River basin. The resultant overheated river water produced large algae blooms, making the river waters toxic to not only wildlife but also humans who came in contact with the algae.

By virtue of a mutual agreement, today waste steam heat from the power plant is piped across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where it is used for heating the campus in the winter and to sterilize equipment year-round. The proximity of a large hospital physical plant, which had the unusual need for steam 12 months of the year, to the power plant was a fortuitous urban condition and demonstrated the beauty of thinking about district-wide solutions for achieving net zero.

Examples like this demonstrate how we need to change the way we think and talk about sustainability. As an architect and city planner, I’ve seen time and time again how the way we communicate an idea is a powerful tool for helping people feel like they can tackle daunting problems. It’s also true that rhetoric can have the opposite effect. Solutions at the scale of the city tend to be complex. They don’t carry the catchy recognition of a well-marketed phrase like “net zero,” but they do make it possible for net zero to be a feasible goal.

I learned this firsthand during my time on the Getting to Net Zero Task Force in Cambridge. In 2015, the Cambridge City Council approved the Net Zero Action Plan, a 25-year proposal that will get Cambridge to net zero by 2040 — the result isn’t just talk but real policy, embodied in the city’s net zero zoning.

To make this work, we understood that the definition of net zero needed to be expanded. Solutions come in myriad form, including accessing green energy from out of state. After all, creating a market for non-CO2-producing energy sources outside the boundaries of one’s own city helps the planet at large. In Cambridge these offsets absolutely count toward netting out a building’s carbon footprint. So daisy-chaining energy production in neighborhoods, and yes, designing homes and buildings with an eye to energy savings so it is ultimately easier to net out the energy use with clean production, need to be strategies too. 

Approaching sustainability as a set of steps and achievable benchmarks can take away some of the daunting magnitude of the task at hand. In Cambridge, for instance, the city started by putting its money where its mouth is. The city is requiring all government buildings — firehouses, police stations and schools, for example — to be net zero by 2025. Next, we’ll tackle the biggest, most energy-sucking buildings, laboratories, with the goal of getting them to net zero by 2030. 

The challenge is big, but it’s not impossible. In Seattle, for example, Amazon’s new downtown headquarters captures waste heat from a non-Amazon-owned data center on an adjacent block to reduce their own energy consumption. It’s just one company, and an area of only a few blocks, but it’s an important proof-of-concept that points the way forward.

On an even larger scale, the United States Department of Energy has launched a Zero Energy Districts Accelerator program that is currently piloting projects in Denver; St. Paul, MN; Buffalo, NY; Huntington Beach, CA and Fresno, CA.

Designers and architects are well positioned to push net zero forward. The job is to imagine futures that don’t exist today, to generate creative solutions that speak to all of the above-mentioned scales. District-wide solutions to energy prove that, if we work together, even more powerful and kaleidoscopic solutions are possible for our mind-boggling and seemingly impossible environmental challenges.

The solutions to climate change can be remarkably beautiful and may even lie in some pretty old-fashioned values, like building strong communities, relying on our neighbors and believing that design matters.