“There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way. Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.” — Mayor Ian Billick
by Allen Best
Crested Butte, that most lovely of Colorado mountain towns, now vibrant in summer flowers and always in the bold colors of Victorian storefronts, has now entered into the fractious national debate about natural gas.
The municipality decided Aug. 3 that it will no longer allow natural gas in new buildings. Major remodels will be required to be electric-ready. It’s the first jurisdiction in Colorado to take this action.
Others may soon follow, posing the question of whether Colorado will soon get more rambunctious in its debate about how to effectively achieve the reduction in emissions identified in a 2019 law. That law specified economy-wide emission reductions of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
Buildings must necessarily be part of this drawdown, and that puts the focus on natural gas, which provides space and hot-water heating for more than half of Colorado buildings. Cars last 15 years or longer, but upgrades of buildings often don’t occur for decades.
The Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Roadmap adopted in January 2021 identified emissions from buildings as a relatively small but vital sector. “Even though the emissions reductions from these actions will be relatively modest in the near term,” the roadmap says, “they will grow to become very significant in the period after 2030.”
Berkeley in November 2019 became the first municipality in the United States to ban natural gas in new construction. Since then 80 other towns, cities, and other jurisdictions have followed, first in California but then in other states, too.
In response, 23 states—including five of the seven states bordering Colorado—have adopted laws that prohibit such local regulations. That’s a ban on bans, if you will. An effort was underway in 2020 by oil-and-gas interests in Colorado to put a similar ballot measure, called preemption, before voters. The effort was withdrawn after negotiations with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado legislators in 2021 instead passed several bills that collectively start squeezing natural gas from buildings without blanket bans. The most important of these bills, SB21-264, requires the four regulated utilities that sell natural gas in Colorado to submit clean-heat plans beginning in 2023.
This clean-heat requirement along with other laws adopted in 2021 nudge Colorado’s four regulated utilities that deliver natural gas toward helping their customers convert their homes and businesses from natural gas to electricity. Xcel Energy, the largest, sells both gas and electricity, so the loss of gas sales will be offset by increased electricity sales. Atmos, the supplier of natural gas to Crested Butte, does not sell electricity, so it will have to cut its emissions in other ways.
Crested Butte might seem an unlikely trailblazer. It’s smallish, with 1,334 full-time residents. The conventional wisdom holds that the big liberal bastions wade into changes first, which then get gradually introduced into the more rural outposts. But neither Denver nor Boulder, though they have started squeezing emissions from buildings in significant ways, have gone quite as far.
Denver, for example, requires heat pumps for space heating and heat-pump water heaters for existing buildings — but not homes — at the time of system replacement, starting in 2024 to 2027. That’s not an explicit ban on natural gas, although it may come close.
The most important aspect of Crested Butte’s example may be its colder climate. It sits at 8,909 feet. Other places that are actually lower in elevation lay claim to the dubious distinction of record cold, but Crested Butte knows chill, an average low of 6 below during January, its coldest month. Town officials, after examining the available technology, including air-source heat pumps, concluded that nobody will suffer in this transition to building electrification.
If it can work in Crested Butte, surely it should work in Castle Rock or Colorado Springs or any number of other places.
Mark Reaman, the editor of the Crested Butte News, called the measure “largely symbolic in the sense it will not save the world. Not even close,” he wrote in a column titled “Symbolism Matters.” “But it could send a message and set an example to those living and visiting here. It is tangible action applicable at the local level.”
Crested Butte, he added, “is one of those towns that punches above its weight given the people it draws and the attitude that doing something locally matters.” His offered the metaphor of a seed now planted “that might grow beyond our little garden.”
To get an understanding of how Crested Butte got to where it is and how it fits with the bigger picture now evolving in Colorado, Big Pivots conducted an e-mail interview with three people:
Ian Billick is the mayor of Crested Butte. He ran on a platform of climate change action and housing. He is also a biologist who manages the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where scientists from across the country gather during summers to study climate change and other topics at an elevation of 9,000-plus-feet.
Christine Brinker is the senior buildings policy manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. She has been deeply involved with helping draft the state legislation and local policies that seek to pivot Colorado’s buildings to fewer emissions.
Mike Foote is a public-interest environmental attorney from Boulder County who served in the Colorado Legislature from 2013 to 2021. As a Democratic legislator, he co-sponsored legislation in 2019 that set Colorado on its march to realize deep, deep decarbonization of its economy – buildings being a particularly knotty problem to solve.
Big Pivots: As mayor of Crested Butte, Ian, can you identify a precise moment when the vision began to take place of eliminating natural gas in new buildings and those with major remodels?
Ian Billick: Several years ago, and before I joined the council, Crested Butte adopted an aggressive climate action plan. New building codes are issued every three years and given how much buildings contribute to carbon emissions, it made quite a bit of sense to consider electrification in adopting the new code.
Pivots: Let’s talk about that aggressive climate action plan. Crested Butte in around 2007 joined a great many towns and cities in adopting a resolution favoring renewable energy. It was my impression that nothing much then happened, perhaps because nobody knew where to start. What explains the more muscular approach?
Billick: A combination of an experienced town staff that has identified meaningful leverage points and a Town Council that has collectively made climate action a top priority. Also, improvements in building technology, including air source heat pumps, along with increases in natural gas prices, make electrification more cost effective, independent of climate impacts.
Pivots: Striking to me was the relative lack of discussion about the adequacy of alternative technologies to natural gas. Was there concern that air-source heat pumps would be unable to perform satisfactorily in Crested Butte’s relatively cold climate?
Billick: The efficiency of air-source heat pump technology declines significantly with colder temperatures. However, the technology works much better in very cold temperatures than it did even a few years ago and can be effectively combined with supplemental heat systems. It’s an example of how recent improvements in technology have made this move possible.
Pivots: The adequacy of the technology was not a major talking point? And do I understand that you had the support of local building contractors?
Billick: We did not spend a lot of time talking about the adequacy of the technology. We had a consultant, August Hasz, with the Resource Engineering Group, which has substantial experience building fully electrified housing in similar, high-altitude, cold environments. We also had local builders who have built successfully here without natural gas express their support. For me, that was very compelling.
Pivots: Let’s explore both of these. What other high-altitude, colder environments? And your local builders – if they are comfortable with the new technology, what do you think that says about places like Vail or Summit County?
Billick: Resource Engineering Group cited projects in Basalt Valley and Telluride. An affordable housing project recently opened in Gunnison that is all electric.
Pivots: You have cited analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute that electrification will usually reduce costs. Is that comparison of gas vs. electric in the completed building? Or is that in cost savings over time?
Billick: One thing we learned is that the cost-benefit analysis of electrification versus natural gas is complicated; you can’t say that one technology will always be cheaper. But RMI has found that in many circumstances both up-front costs as well as lifetime costs will be cheaper with electrification. For example, there are costs to hooking a home up to natural gas that are avoided with full electrification.
Pivots: How many unbuilt lots? Any potential annexations? What application might you see in remodels? Would this have been a harder decision had there been more real estate involved?
Billick: We have about 60 unbuilt lots. Additionally, we have an affordable housing project involving 60-80 units coming online, which will be built to the new code. We have no annexations in the pipeline. Major renovations will trigger a requirement that buildings be electric ready. For me, the decision was not influenced by the number of units involved. There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way. Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.
Pivots: Your law allows an exemption. Please explain.
Billick: We allow commercial kitchens to use natural gas for cooking.
Pivots: The Crested Butte News reported the major pushback was from those who urged a go-slower approach. For other towns considering following in the footsteps of Crested Butte, how would you describe that pushback? And why did the council reject that go-slower approach?
Billick: We had a working group analyzing this option through the spring, including holding a question and answer session for the public. The CB Town Council had a work session, as well as two public hearings. By the final public hearing while some disagreed with the policy, no new information was emerging, nor did council feel that it was missing any information. We had the information we needed to make a decision, so we moved forward.
Pivots: I was struck by the fact that the council was unanimous. Can you explain the unity on this? Does it extend to other decisions?
Billick: The council works very well together, but we don’t always agree. The council has been very clear, however, that climate action is a priority that is shared across the board.
Pivots: What repercussions beyond Crested Butte do you hope your town’s actions will have?
Billick: If we can make it work in an environment as extreme as Crested Butte, it is possible to make it work across the country.
Pivots: Christine, when do you think we will hear about the next local government in Colorado to limit or ban natural gas in homes and buildings?
Christine Brinker: Most likely in the next few months. While they may not outright prohibit natural gas, they will likely take steps to either gradually move away from it or at least reduce some of the negative impacts. For example, some local governments in the northwestern metro area are working together on a policy that would give builders a choice between either all-electric or, on the other hand, natural gas with extra energy efficiency.
Having said that, Crested Butte’s example will surely give these and other local governments the courage to take stronger climate action and take bolder steps toward all-electric new construction.
Pivots: Colorado has adopted several laws in the last two years that seek to reduce emissions from buildings. How would you describe the general approach?
Brinker: The approach has been to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis while at the same time trying to orchestrate the transition in a way that protects our workers and families. Recent bills had extensive negotiations and “stakeholdering” with builders, building owners, labor, local leaders, equity groups, and more, because ultimately, the policies need to be workable, practical, and impactful for as many Coloradans as possible.
From a policy standpoint, the original 2019 law set an overall emissions reduction goal 90% by 2050, and individual bills since then are going sector-by-sector to help reach those goals. That’s where these bills governing buildings fit.
Pivots: How does the law passed in May, HB22-1362, titled “Building Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” define the paths forward for local jurisdictions? Do you see various paths for different communities?
Brinker: That law sets the floor, the minimum, for resilient and energy-efficient construction when local governments update any other building codes. This is in recognition that many homebuyers and renters don’t have the ability to choose efficient and healthy homes – they have to “take what’s out there.” Better energy codes make sure homes and buildings are built right at the outset.
Notably, the law still allows natural gas — but requires that new construction at least include the wiring for future all-electric appliances like heat pumps. And it allows local governments like Crested Butte to go above the minimum if they want.
Pivots: Air-source heat pumps remain fairly expensive. Do you see this changing?
Brinker: The costs of the technology have fallen significantly in recent years while performance improved. The next stage of cost reduction will partly come from contractors here getting more familiar with the latest heat-pump technology, something being helped along by trainings from Xcel Energy and others.
Also, heat pumps have a new batch of incentives available because of how much they help our air quality and climate – including rebates from Xcel Energy and other utilities, a 10% tax credit from the state, and tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Pivots: As a former state senator, Mike, I would like your read on the political implications of this ban adopted by Crested Butte. Colorado’s policy so far has been a firm but still gentle squeeze of emissions, both methane and carbon dioxide, from buildings. The clean heat law, for example, stipulates that consumers will always retain choice.
Does the mandate by Crested Butte put the Polis administration into a place it would prefer not to be? Or are the numbers in Crested Butte just too small to be consequential?
Mike Foote: Local governments in Colorado have significant autonomy when it comes to their building codes. Crested Butte’s actions are consistent with that tradition of local control. Certainly some state actors and the oil-and-gas industry will take notice of it.
It is highly unlikely, even after this fall’s elections, that there will be a successful effort in the legislature to limit the ability of local governments to do what Crested Butte did. Some gas proponents have advocated for a statewide “energy choice” ballot measure that would prohibit localities from requiring non-fossil energy in their codes. This is sometimes called a “ban on bans.” At some point that effort could get more traction if the industry decides to fund a statewide campaign. The threat of the industry going to the ballot is always there, but it shouldn’t dissuade local governments from taking climate action in my opinion.
Pivots: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to pass a statewide law that would ban natural gas by 2027. Assuming Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is reelected this fall, can you envision him attempting to do the same? Why or why not?
Foote: We haven’t seen Governor Polis propose a policy like that during his first four years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the General Assembly were thinking about it. The fact of the matter is new gas usage must be substantially curtailed within this decade for us to avoid the worst effects of climate change. There are not too many easy options left to achieve that, at least in Colorado.
Top photo: Crested Butte’s Elk Avenue/Mark Reaman
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Thanks for the commentary and information. It will be useful for our fledgling, local climate action work.