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Energy

The “building electrification” movement is coming for your Colorado home. Here’s what you need to know before giving up gas.

Fighting greenhouse gases means switching out fuel-burning furnaces, water heaters and stoves for models running on clean electricity. Coloradans will have to adapt.

Electrification heat pumps geothermal alternative energy
Con Frank at his home where he has installed multiple electrification systems, including a geothermal heat pump shown here, heat pump water heaters, and an induction cooktop. Frank is a contractor who helps others electrify their homes in a growing environmental and home efficiency movement. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

They are indeed coming for your gas stove. 

And your trusty 40-gallon tank of hot water sitting atop a natural-gas bonfire. 

And the belching, fuel-burning furnace in the basement that makes a Colorado winter survivable. 

Home and office building electrification — switching out gas or propane appliances for electric versions powered eventually by 100% renewable sources — is on its way to Colorado neighborhoods as a key element of combating greenhouse gas emissions. State officials and environmental groups have spent years clamping down on climate-changing emissions from power utilities and vehicles. So the next frontier is defossilizing the four walls surrounding you. 

“It’s a significant quantity of climate pollution, and a really important area to tackle if we want to hit the goals that we have to reduce climate-change pollution,” said Danny Katz, executive director of the environmental and community advocacy group CoPIRG.

Home and commercial building emissions contribute about 13% of overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The primary legs of climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels are power generation, transportation, oil and gas activity, and building use. 

Colorado has about 2.2 million homes — 1.6 million of which are heated by natural gas or propane, Katz said. 

It’s one thing for the distant electric utility to change from coal to solar. Most consumers couldn’t care less what’s on the other end of the transmission line as long as their TVs and phone chargers work when plugged into the wall. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But switching out appliances that sit at the heart of the home, through a policy called “beneficial electrification,” will be a complex and time-consuming process. For starters, many typical consumers have no idea what it means. 

When they or the market are ready, electrification advocates say, consumers will find out that the replacement devices can cost the same as — or less than — fuel-burning devices, run more efficiently over time, and rid living areas of locally hazardous emissions such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. 

“They just don’t know,” said Conald Frank, a contractor in Foxfield, near Parker, who installs geothermal heat pumps and other replacement appliances in homes and apartment buildings across the metro area. “They go, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it’s got to be too good to be true.’” 

induction cooktop alternative energy electrification
Removing all fossil fuel-burning appliances from homes and buildings is one of the next big goals of advocates working on climate change emissions and energy efficiency. Replacing gas-burning stovetops with induction tops like this one at Con Frank’s home are a key part of the effort. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What consumers may have missed so far is that the largely invisible infrastructure of building design, supply and regulation have been moving toward electrification while they were thinking of shopping for an electric vehicle.

Denver, for example, is in charge of the largest and often most influential set of building codes in the state. The city is developing a plan to require all-electric basic appliances in new-home construction within three years. A follow-up plan to accelerate electrification in existing homes — largely through incentives to replace aging appliances — will be ready by this summer, Denver officials said. 

Denver planners are responding to the climate-change concerns of voters and consumers, said Katrina Managan, buildings team lead in the city’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency.

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“Our community is really excited about helping us figure out how to meet our climate goals, and they want us to find that really kind of reasonable stepwise path to these ambitious goals,” Managan said. 

Critics of ever-broadening government climate-change regulation are not so excited.

They note that for at least the next decade, consumers using electricity in Colorado will still be benefiting from coal-burning power plants until renewables take over. They also point to the February cold wave’s crippling of the Southwestern economy as evidence that the world still needs reliable fossil fuel power as a backup. 

Moreover, they say, when policy is, in effect, demanding consumers to buy a lot of new things, one way or another, the impact is bound to be unfair. 

“Some consumers will be harmed by this policy, and some will receive benefits that exceed the cost,” said William F. Shughart II, an economist and the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University. “But not everyone is in the same situation. I don’t like one-size-fits-all policies, which restrict freedom of choice.”

Three major areas need work, advocates say, as Colorado moves toward electrification of homes and buildings: 

  • The state will need to move faster to write the practical rules and regulations that fulfill goals set by Gov. Jared Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Roadmap and House Bill 1261, the 2019 law that set up a phased-in approach to slowing climate change in Colorado. The Air Quality Control Commission and the Public Utilities Commission will need to sanction utility rebates and incentives for consumers to use electric appliances instead of gas, and to let them recover that money from all ratepayers.

Colorado also needs stronger incentives for building EV charging stations, and a more efficient way to build power transmission lines serving expected solar and wind generation growth in the southern third of the state. Many of the environmental advocates’ hopes are bound up in this year’s Senate Bill 200, which key legislators continue to push even though Polis is threatening a veto. The bill would put hard deadlines for emissions-reductions goals passed in 2019 and build environmental-justice issues into future rules. 

  • Telling local builders, renovators, landlords and consumers what needs to happen inside commercial buildings and homes is largely the job of local building code writers. Cities such as Denver will need to fit beneficial electrification standards into their regular code updates and to ensure that new sets of regulations don’t make unaffordable housing costs and bureaucracy even worse. 

Cities, utilities and the state will also have to cooperate with nonprofits and the private sector on social-justice aspects of electrification. Changing out a major appliance such as a furnace or water heater takes thousands of dollars. Lower-income residents who already suffer disproportionately from climate-change impacts and pollution shouldn’t be the last to get electrified homes, advocates say. 

  • Consumers and building contractors will have to get educated on the new market reality. New heat-pump units, which actually act as reverse air conditioners, are hard for consumers to understand. The same technology can be used to replace traditional hot water heaters, although many smaller-tank, instant-electrification models a la Europe are already on the market. Gas stoves, to which many cooks are deeply attached, must be replaced by magnetic induction cooktops that feel like a whole new way of operating in the kitchen. Induction works only with certain types of pans, meaning some cooks will have to buy new sets.

Even contractors and engineers are often way behind in learning about efficient, practical alternatives that work well in Colorado, Frank said. He frequently installs geothermal heating and cooling, which runs water pipes underground at a constant temperature of about 60 degrees. The water is piped into heat exchangers in winter to reach comfortable temperatures in either summer or winter. 

“Mechanical engineers go to school and they don’t learn crap about it,” Frank said. Electrification needs to move beyond highly educated, high-income consumers who have the money and free time to do the research, he said. Right now, he said, “People that want to find it, find it.” 

These days, Frank is teaching clients about heat pumps for hot water tanks, which he has just installed in his home. The heat pumps, which are ducted to pull excess heat from near the ceiling of the house, provide ample hot water while running for far-less cost than a conventional water tank, Frank said. 

Consumers need to hear realism about products if advocates want them to come along for home electrification and for the fight against climate change, Frank said. A few years ago, he tried European-style instant-heating water tanks that hold far-smaller amounts than Americans are used to. 

“If someone’s taking a hot shower, as soon as you open up one faucet, you’ve got almost half the flow rate, and if you open up a second, you’re maxing that unit out, and as soon as you open the third faucet, you’re trickling water, because it can’t heat water that fast,” he said. 

Air-source heat pumps, which often reverse function as air conditioners during warm months, are currently readily available for builders and homeowners at prices comparable to traditional gas furnaces. Heat pump water heaters are also comparable in price to gas-fired water tanks, although installation can be more expensive to cover heavier-duty electrical supply and backup electrical power. 

Induction cooktops are still a few hundred dollars above midlevel gas cooktops, but they are coming down in price as mainstream appliance companies put out more models. 

Although use of electrified furnaces, water heaters and cooktops is growing, they’re starting from near zero, said Meera Fickling, senior climate-policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates. Heat pumps are currently used in only about 2% of Colorado homes, she said. 

Studies show that gas furnaces can last up to 27 years before replacement, and water heaters up to 20 years, she said. Such long turnover makes it all the more important to start new construction mandates as soon as possible, she said. 

“The speed and scale of market transformation is really why we need policy — from our state and local governments and our electricity utilities — to meet this challenge,” Fickling said. “To be able to advance building electrification in line with our overall climate target.” 

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