Replacing natural gas in Denver

Building electrification stands out in new climate action report by Denver task force

 by Allen Best

A task force convened in January has issued a report that urges Denver to hurry up and get more meaningful action done to reduce greenhouse gases.

Total emissions dropped 13% from 2005 to 2017, owing primarily to the greener electricity distributed by Xcel Energy. Direct emissions—primarily from natural gas in buildings and liquid fuels used for transportation—have not.

The report has proposals for ways to reduce emissions from the many sectors of the city’s economy, but what stands out to me is the building sector. The way Denver slices the energy pie, as of 2018 buildings were responsible for 34% of carbon dioxide emissions and homes 15%.

The task force calls for a requirement that electrification of buildings occur when equipment has failed. And, by 2040, natural gas equipment should be replaced where possible.

The same section calls for net-zero (highly efficient, all-electric, renewable energy, grid-flexible) new homes required in the 2024 base building code and in new buildings in the 2027 base building code.

This fits in with a broad theme I am seeing. My own odyssey goes back almost a decade, when I was first introduced to the idea of beneficial electrification by the individual responsible for the buildings at Stanford University. He didn’t call it that. But the idea that he articulated was that all buildings would be heated by electricity, and that electricity would, of course, come from renewable sources.

That has, in fact, now happened at Stanford, as Denver’s report notes.

And it’s beginning to happen in Colorado. The most prominent example is at all-electric Basalt Vista. Now I hear from Chris Bilby, one of the energy architects from Holy Cross who made that project happen, that a bunch of housing under construction or soon to break ground in Pitkin County will be all-electric.

(And elsewhere in Colorado I hear of conversations starting about the end of natural gas infrastructure).

See also: The future of energy illustrated by Basalt Vista

What strikes me as interesting about Denver’s report is that this is something the city government has the power to implement. A scrape-and-replace in Highlands? This should be easy.

The provision calling for replacement of existing natural gas infrastructure, as it breaks down, could be powerful, although I admit I don’t know what all would be involved.

(I replaced a natural gas furnace at my house several years ago, but with another natural gas stove. I had a hard time persuading the appliance guys that I wanted a 96% efficiency stove and not just an 84% efficiency off-the-shelf stove that is the stock in trade at Home Depot.)

Denver’s task force very much reveals the broad currents of recent times. It makes note of Denver’s diversity but also the outsized impacts of pollution on racial and other minorities. It wants to seize the momentum evident in the Black Lives Matter movement of recent months to move forward on climate action, too.

Another provision calls for expanding the tree canopy to under-resourced neighborhoods.

The report estimates that an all-ion approach would require $198 million annually in funding. It proposes to raise that revenue in various ways, including a sales tax at 0.25%, which would yield $36 million, along with other sources

Read the plan yourself here.

This is from the July 8, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.  Sign up here to get free copies.

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Allen Best