Decarbonizing Colorado’s buildings

Governor’s advisor on climate predicts that energy and buildings will be a major focus in 2021 legislative session

By Allen Best

Expect to see emissions associated with the built environment as a major area of attention during the upcoming legislative session.

Zach Pierce, the special climate and energy advisor to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, speaking on a recent webinar, described a broad range of potential legislation that could begin to shrink the still-growing emissions from buildings in Colorado.

“We really see a big focus on the built environment in the upcoming session,” he said. Specific ideas include:

  • legislation to require that Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission create programs that support customer adoption of electric heat pumps and other forms of beneficial electrification.
  • expand energy efficiency investments from natural gas utilities to support building shell improvements.
  • create carbon-reduction goals and leak-reduction targets for natural gas utilities.
  • consideration of legislation to create a renewable gas portfolio standard, as was proposed by State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, during the covid-shortened session earlier this year. The standard would create an incentive to drive dollars toward capturing methane from dairies, landfills, and sewage plants. In this way, natural gas used in buildings could be reduced. Methane is a primary constituent of natural gas.
  • benchmarking of new buildings, requiring existing large commercial buildings to track energy use and make progress toward energy and pollution performance standards. Denver already has such requirements.
  • advancing the building codes.

His remarks were made during a Zoom session sponsored by the Colorado REpowering Schools program. The mission is to “educate students and their communities about renewable energy” and “increase the pool of qualified labor and inform citizens to make educated energy decisions.” The Colorado chapter is headed by Larry Flowers, a long-time researcher in the wind program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

A staffer in the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper for three years, Pierce then went on to represent the Sierra Club in Colorado and New Mexico for two years before becoming a Polis advisor in early 2019.

Colorado in 2019 adopted aggressive economy-wide decarbonization goals. A draft roadmap was released by the Colorado Air Quality Control Division in September, with a final to be released in January. The draft was criticized by some environmental groups as being too sparse on the itinerary for this path going forward. Pierce defended the vagueness as inevitable.

“We don’t presume to know exactly what the outcome will look like in 2030,” when Colorado by law must decarbonize its economy 50%.

Zach Pierce

Colorado broadly sees the strategy going forward being one of decarbonizing the electrical supply, then electrifying other sectors, including transportation and buildings.

State officials have consistently said that they are optimistic about the pace of decarbonizing the electricity sector. Most coal-fired power plants in Colorado are scheduled to close by 2029, and some of the 4 remaining units—at Hayden, Brush, and Pueblo—may yet be similarly scheduled.

“The last few years have been astounding when you think of the commitments we have received from utilities representing over 97% of fossil generation in the state to achieve 80% reductions in emission by 2030,” he said.

“That is a profound shift.”

That has also been a point of pride for Gov. Jared Polis, who cited the same statistic on Dec. 14 in an appearance with Holy Cross Energy when that utility announced its new goal of 100% decarbonization of its electricity supply by 2030.

The legislation in 2019 mandated Xcel Energy to create an 80% reduction (compared to 2005 levels) plan for 2030, but delivered a softer glide for other utilities, including those not directly regulated by the state. It created a safe-harbor provision that allowed Platte River, Colorado Springs Utilities, and others to create carbon-reduction plans.

“We think it has been a really powerful tool, because it has allowed the utilities to work through their own planning processes.”

Some members of the Air Quality Control Commission have probed Polis administration officials about the need to adopt additional laws, such as putting an economy wide price on carbon.

(A 2019 law established a social cost of carbon to be applied to Public Utilities Commission evaluation of energy resource plans submitted by Xcel, Black Hills, and Tri-State).

Several environmental groups, including Western Resource Advocates, have similarly questioned the pace but also the sufficiency of the existing tool kit.

“We don’t necessarily prioritize new legislation in this space, because we feel we have all the regulations that we need to continue to progress in this sector,” he said, referring to the electric sector. However, other legislative proposals may be made.

“We will review and engage on those appropriate to advance the governor’s bold platform on renewables, pollution reduction and climate action,” Pierce explained later.

Pierce also said that the Polis proposed budget for 2021-22 would deliver $40 million to clean energy finance programs. Of that $30 million would go to the Clean Energy Funding program administered by the Colorado Energy Office. Additional funding would go to a new climate resilience office in the Department of Agriculture and provide money for the still-skeletal office of Just Transition, The office was created by the Legislature to help communities and workers impacted by the transition from coal.

Legislators assumed a greater impact to state revenues from covid in 2020 than in fact occurred, which is why there could be money available for clean energy. The state still assumes a significant deficit in coming years.

Among the questions Pierce fielded was that posed by Flowers, the webinar organizer: What would be the impact of the incoming Biden administration on state-based activities in the energy transition.

“It’s hard to overstate having a federal administration that at the baseline level shares a commitment to climate action but also recognizes the economic opportunities represented by the transition to a clean energy economy,” Pierce answered.

He cited reversal of rolled-back rules, such as those governing automotive emissions, as what can be expected.

But Colorado, he added is not counting on any federal action to reach its goals. At this point, it’s the state leading the federal government.

“The incoming administration will benefit from meaningful ways the host of states have taken the torch and chosen to move forward,” he said.

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Allen Best