Get Big Pivots

Allen Best

Natural gas arrived in 1963 at the house where I was reared in a Colorado farming town. It was wonderful, much cleaner and more efficient than the fuel oil that it replaced. The fuel oil furnace had in turn replaced an even dirtier fuel, coal.

Now, we’re on the cusp of another transition in Colorado, this one from natural gas to electricity. A conversation about this transition has been underway in Louisville, a one-time coal-mining town. Louisville lost more than 500 homes in the Marshall Fire of late December. The question before city officials has been how to rebuild.

Being among Colorado’s most progressive cities, Louisville had already adopted the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code. That building code improved energy efficiency by 9%, part of a steady progression of the past 20 years. The latest code also requires electrical wiring needed to charge electric vehicles but also heat pumps.

Heat-pump technology has advanced significantly in recent years, able to heat homes even as temperatures outside plunge toward zero. That’s about as cold as it gets in most places where Coloradans live. Winters are trending warmer. Heat pumps can work in reverse, too, cooling buildings during summer. In both cases, they squeeze the coolness or heat out of the air. Using coils, the same technology, called ground-source heat pumps, can tap the relatively constant 55-degree temperature found 6 to 10 feet underground.

This technology uses electricity to cause this heat transfer. Electricity across Colorado will come primarily from renewable sources by 2030.

What’s not to like? Heat pumps do cost more than standard furnaces that burn natural gas, whose primary constituent is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. They will pay for themselves in time. The question specifically in Louisville is whether to exempt those rebuilding from the latest building codes. Estimates of costs for upgrading necessary for this new electrified future have ranged broadly. Louisville’s planning staff settled on a figure of $20,000.

Even that cost might be eliminated with handsome incentives offered by Xcel Energy and an offer from a community solar developer. Too, state legislators are already considering sales tax and income tax breaks to encourage adoption of heat pumps and other ready-for-prime-time technologies in Colorado. The incentives are part of a range of strategies being reviewed that seek to nudge Colorado’s buildings to lower emissions.

Buildings rank fourth as a source of emissions in Colorado. These emissions must be reduced by around 90% during the next 30 years if Colorado hopes to meet its mid-century emissions-reduction goals.

Unlike cars, though, we don’t swap out our buildings every few years. We do swap out kitchen countertops occasionally, but the more important stuff in the basement poses greater challenge. It costs a lot to lay natural gas lines to a house, about $2,400 per unit, according to one estimate in Fort Collins.

People buying the 25,000 to 30,000 or so new houses being constructed in Colorado each year don’t pay this cost, though. Existing customers of the investor-owned gas utilities subsidized these extensions of natural gas lines. The costs are socialized. The lines are expected to last 60 to 70 years.

But hey — if Colorado is going to decarbonize its economy in 30 years or less, how does that compute? As the old saying goes, if you’re in a hole, stop digging.

A 2021 law ordered the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to approve a plan to begin decarbonizing natural gas supplies. Something called renewable natural gas is one way, but it has limited potential. At some point, we must stop extending miles and miles of new natural gas lines each year.

Not all agree. Since December, hundreds of letters from Ouray to Grand Junction to Greeley have poured into the PUC in objection. The usual line of objection is that this will cause housing to become less affordable, hitting lower-income housing most significantly. There is, of course, a housing affordability issue across nearly the entire state.

A counter-argument is now being waged. Installing natural gas pipes and other infrastructure saddles lower-income residents with higher bills for decades to come. The fuel for air-source heat pumps is free, but natural gas prices have become volatile again.

Xcel Energy and the three other investor-owned gas utilities regulated by the state have pushed back vigorously. Xcel, for example, objects to funding of new lines being called subsidized. Local governments are mixed. Aurora opposes the proposed policy, Boulder supports it.

Myself, I’m hoping my life will last long enough to span coal and heat pumps. We must use every tool to quell the emissions. This is one of them.

Allen Best
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