To meet its climate goals, this Colorado city of 20,000 needs to crimp methane combustion. It could require all-electric in new buildings by January 2024
by Allen Best
Golden could require all-electric in new construction by as early as January 2024.
The city council Tuesday evening gave staff members direction to continue working on a roadmap but with additional research and public meetings to resolve concerns about a proposed requirement for on-site renewable generation that some community members see as problematic.
Crested Butte was the first jurisdiction in Colorado to ban natural gas. The regulations it adopted last August allow natural gas only within special cases, such as for restaurants and other commercial uses, in the 100-plus lots remaining to be developed.
As Colorado jurisdictions go about updating their building codes, several are still undecided about whether to ban natural gas or other fossil fuels for space and water heating. Some have decided to lay the ground-work for all electric without actually raising that bar. Many, perhaps most, have given no thought to the day of all-electric buildings.
Towns, cities, and counties have until July 1 to update their building codes to recent iterations of the national standard or accept a code being drawn up by a state committee identified in 2022 legislation.
Golden is not facing that deadline as it has already adopted the 2021 national building codes. Instead, it is being pushed by its own climate action goals, which correspond with the Paris Accord of 2017. To hit its targets, Golden will have to achieve 100% renewables for heating by 2050.
As was observed at the council meeting, the first step in achieving that ambitious goal will be to stop digging a deeper hole. Building new houses that burn natural gas digs the hole deeper because they will ultimately have to be retrofitted. The city has 9,459 buildings.
“Every new building that is constructed and every existing building that is retrofitted without efficiency and electrification as a primary objective works directly against the City’s Goals,” says a report given to the city council members.
In raw numbers, this all-electric requirement will have marginal impact in that Golden is land-locked. That limits new construction to infill or to replacement of existing buildings. In the last five years, Golden has had no more than 17 new single-family houses in any given year. The maximum for one year was 8 commercial buildings.
If modest in numbers by itself, Golden’s work can best be understood in the broader context of local communities looking to reinvent our energy systems. Golden studied what others are doing in Colorado and beyond and expects that others will in turn study what Golden has done.
The efforts to crowd out natural gas from buildings constitutes the most easily identified story. Theresa Worsham, the sustainability director for Golden, emphasizes that each community’s needs are likely to be different, and its decarbonization plans need to be similarly different.
What works for Denver is entirely appropriate there, “but it does not suit Golden,” she says. “That is why we are coming up with a lot of solutions across many communities. Golden’s plan works for our scale and size and might also work for other jurisdictions similar to Golden.”
After adopting a resolution aligning the city’s goals with those of the Paris Accord in 2017, Golden in 2019 adopted its climate action goals and then, in 2020, began assembling the document that more narrowly addresses emissions from buildings. Two city-appointed commissions—the Community Sustainability Advisory Board and the Planning Commission—were principally responsible for creation of the recommendations, called “A Roadmap to Net-Zero Buildings.”
In addition, 12 community members with a diversity of interests and backgrounds were enlisted to participate in the Energy Code Stakeholder Group.
Others from the city’s affordable housing, building and planning staffs were also engaged, and several dozen public meetings were held, some with the specific intent of inviting comment from builders and others.
The report to the city council identified four strategies. One would require owners of commercial buildings of 5,000 square feet or more to track their emissions. The state now has a similar requirement for buildings 50,000 square feet or more. The idea is to get building owners and managers to understand their emissions with the potential for instituting programs in the future that may seek to reduce emissions. Among the city’s goals, adopted with the Paris agreement, is to squeeze energy use in all buildings by 15% through efficiency measures.
Another strategy—given virtually no attention at the city council meeting—would commit the city to further research during 2023 about how to convert existing buildings toward net-zero all-electric in coming years.
Still to be worked out is how the policy will address building retrofits. Ken Jacobs, a member of the sustainability committee for six years who remains involved, suggests the most effective policy would trigger the net-zero requirement if the remodeling is extensive enough to require new heating systems. Building professionals may have other and better ideas, he says. But in any case, retrofits will be more complicated than new builds.
Where Golden’s work stands most prominently is the proposed requirement for on-site renewable generation. This proposed requirement comes from core assumptions by the Golden groups who worked on these recommendations. While it might easily be possible to import all of Golden’s electricity from distant wind and solar farms, the groups concluded that the city has a moral responsibility to generate electricity locally. This also has the advantage of furthering the city’s interests in resilience.
The proposed regulation would require that on-site energy storage be deployed or off-site solar via solar gardens located in Golden. The last resort would be purchase of renewable energy credits for renewable energy systems located in Colorado.
This on-site requirement provoked nearly the only red flag. Articulating that concern was Angela Schwab, principal architect at AB Studio.
She said she supports sustainability goals, including the 100% net-zero goal. However, it may not work well in the case of some commercial properties and other special properties, such as those with view and other considerations, she said.
To illustrate her concerns, she cited her work on the Astor House, a stone hotel built in 1867, when Colorado was a territory and Golden was its capital.
The building has been expanded to accommodate an art gallery but also improve accessibility as required for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Regulations for such buildings preclude solar on the roofs.
Solar panels could be located on the ground, but that would have conflicted with the planting of trees and the planned open space.
Golden’s city staff and advisory board will be working over concerns centered around the on-site renewables requirement in coming weeks and months.
Top photo: Ken Jacobs tells the Golden City Council members that all-electric homes will avoid the spikes in home-heating bills caused by volatile natural gas prices. Photo/Allen Best
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