Get Big Pivots

By Allen Best

Tuesday’s meeting of the Winter Park Town Council was at times tense, but with no real mention of the elephant in the room.

In the midst of a building boom, Xcel Energy began telling builders in early May that there wasn’t enough natural gas for all the new units for some time to come. The existing 2-inch high-pressure line to Winter Park and its neighboring jurisdiction, Fraser, was at 95% of capacity. Plans for a replacement were in the works—but the most optimistic projection the utility can muster is a replacement by the end of 2022. That optimistic scenario will require expedited review and, because of the preferred route for the new pipeline, will require a permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Xcel says it is planning a 4-inch pipeline but is evaluating pipelines with diameters up to 8 inches.

Existing commitments will be honored, the utility says. Those already with natural gas will continue to get natural gas—as will those places under construction and with commitments from the company.

Other projects in the development pipeline—well, there’s not enough in the gas pipeline for all of them.

Temporary systems, propane and compressed natural gas, were discussed, and there was even a bit of mention about all-electric houses.

But nowhere during the 90-minute meeting was there mention of Colorado’s decarbonization goals adopted in 2019. Nor was there mention of the suite of four bills adopted by Colorado legislators in recent weeks that collectively begin to pivot buildings, which are responsible for 10% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, away from fossil fuels. As well, the state’s Public Utilities Commission has been having discussions about this very issue of installing natural gas infrastructure that may be of little value about the time the 30-year mortgage is paid off.

In Fraser on Wednesday night, though, alternatives were mentioned. “My last house was all-electric, the house I’m about to start is all-electric, and I have 20 units beyond that will also be all-electric,” said Town Trustee Andy Miller, a builder.

And a representative of Mountain Parks Electric advised trustees of all-electric opportunities.

Kelly Flenniken

Kelly Flenniken, director of community relations for Xcel Energy, said the moratorium had two parents: One, the utility’s models that project demand failed to predict the amount of development growth in Winter Park. There has been a boom that defied standard predictions.

Second, Xcel cannot build infrastructure without justification. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission, she said, “limits proactive capital investments.”

In Fraser, Xcel is thinking about a compressed-natural gas station between the Safeway and Holiday Inn. There seem to be no great worries about safety; noise impacts are unclear.

In an interview after the meetings, Keith Riesberg, the town manager for Winter Park, said that the two towns together have issued 90 building permits per year for the last three years. The growth has been linear, he said, not exponential—a clear contradiction to the claims of Xcel.

He also disputed the references to the Roam development as a catalyst for a moratorium. The recently approved project has entitlements to more than 1,000 housing units, but they will take many years to build out, as is also the case with Rendezvous, which has 1,800 units entitled, and Cornerstone in Fraser.

Representatives of Mountain Parks Electric will be presenting all-electrification alternatives at a July 20 workshop, he said.

This is from Big Pivots 40, published on June 18, 2021.

Mountain Parks, the cooperative serving the communities, has been thinking about aggressive electrification of buildings. In fact, it offers what may be the most attractive rebates and financing terms in Colorado. Central to the inducements are air-source heat pumps, which use the same technology as refrigerators to extract heat from the outside air. The technology costs more upfront but the utility bills are lower over time.

“With the natural gas supply issue of the moment, it’s really an opportunity for buildings in the community to learn about heat pumps,” says Chris Michalowski, the power use advisor on the staff of Mountain Parks Electric.

Chris Michalowski

Mountain Parks began embracing unfolding opportunities of what the cooperative, like many others, calls Electrify Everything. It’s the idea that transportation and buildings that now rely upon fossil fuels can be supplied by electricity derived from renewable sources.

That led to development of 4 pilot projects, 3 houses in Fraser and one in Granby. In these pilots, data were collected, feedback from homeowners was solicited.

“Manufacturers provide specs for the equipment, but we wanted real-world experience as we have one of the coldest climates in the country and, specifically with the altitude, which affects equipment.”

Initial data and feedback from homeowners argue for successful deployment of the heat pumps and associated technologies. From that, the utility has gone on to create incentives that Michalowski believes may be the best in Colorado:  $2,000 to $6,000 depending upon the size of the system, and 1% interest 10-year-term loans.

“That really helps people offset the up-front costs of installing the heat pumps,” he says.

So far, heat pumps have been installed at one business location, that of a global company with a local presence and commitment to eliminating carbon emissions from its building locations.

Michalowski estimates that Mountain Parks has awarded 75 rebates, 9 this year.

This is from Big Pivots No. 40, which was published on June 18, 2021.

he cooperative would like to see more builders take advantage of the offer. “We are going to be in a great place to be a resource for those homeowners and builders who will be going all electric if they want to build in the next 3 years,” he says.

The most curious aspect of heat pumps is that they can cool equally well as heat. Keep in mind that Middle Park—the basin located upstream of the Gore Range—is one of the nation’s premier locations for long underwear.

It still gets colder than Denver, to be sure, or even Vail, but not as cold as before. And it can get sort of hot. It was 84 degrees in Fraser on Wednesday.

The outskirts of Fraser looking toward Byers Peak. Photo/Allen Best

But now more units are getting air conditioning; you have to if you want high rankings in the Trip Advisors of the world. “Thirty years ago, people would have thought you were crazy,” says Michalowski. “Now it’s nice to have.”

At the Fraser Town Board meeting, Miller didn’t call for a curb on natural gas, although he did mention San Francisco’s ban last November on natural gas in new construction. “If we really want to get to a sustainable future, it has to be electricity,” he said.

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