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Apartment units are seen in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. About 30% of Denver homes don’t have air conditioning, potentially leading some residents to health risks from excessive heat. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

As temperatures rose to triple digits in Denver Tuesday, the city’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency released a plan outlining steps in which city residents can stay comfortable and safe through future heat waves — which are likely to get worse — without causing further damage to the environment.

About 30% of Denver homes do not have air conditioning, most of which are older homes or those in low-income communities, according to the city. As temperatures continue to climb, those Denver’s residents will be vulnerable to health risks brought on by the excessive heat. 

The report outlines steps to replace traditional gas space and water heating appliances with more efficient electric heat pumps powered by renewable energy, a process known as “beneficial electrification,” while prioritizing communities that are already in need.

“Transitioning to all-electric heat pumps, which provide both heating and cooling, is a smarter, more efficient investment to help residents stay cool in hotter summers and warm in the winter,” said Grace Rink, executive director of CASR. “With the increase in air pollution from intense and frequent wildfires, traditional cooling methods, like opening windows or using swamp coolers, are no longer healthy options.”

The city’s plan offers seven options for partial or full electrification and outlines the costs to do so. The replacement could be expensive, but Xcel Energy offers rebates — up to $1,000 based on the option — to help offset costs, according to the report. In three of the four residential replacement case studies included in the report, the cost to operate the new systems is equal to or slightly more expensive than the natural gas systems.

The city’s effort is part of a broader statewide attempt to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting people to give up furnaces, hot water heaters and stoves fueled by natural gas. The switch to electric versions, powered by 100% renewable sources, is a key step in driving down climate pollution, state officials and advocates of the process say.

The city’s plan comes after an unprecedented wildfire season, when three of the worst fires in Colorado’s recorded history ignited within months of one another. Denver also ranked eighth in the country for worst ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s 2020 pollution assessment.

Typically, gas is used to heat and cool homes across the city. According to the report, about 97% of gas consumed in Denver’s buildings and homes is used to heat water and indoor spaces. The output from those two processes account for almost a quarter of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the city said. 

Besides the added comfort air conditioning could bring during future heat waves, electric heat pumps could drive down the city’s emissions. Xcel Energy, the city’s utility provider, has pledged to provide 80% of its electricity through renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

The price, though, could be a barrier for some households looking to make the switch. Typically, the cost of natural gas is almost always lower than electricity.

But with fluctuating gas prices — like during the deep freeze in February — households that choose electrification now could save money on utility bills over time, according to the report. 

Some nonprofit organizations, including those serving the income-qualified, and multifamily affordable housing, could be eligible for a full rebate to cover the cost for materials and installation, according to the report. To qualify, Xcel Energy must determine the electric equipment is cost effective, the report stated.

The city said it plans to start its transition to electrification in “a phased approach,” with most of the work starting this year and extending through 2024, with several activities continuing through 2040.

State lawmakers passed a measure during the 2021 legislative session that requires investor-owned utilities in the state to come up with beneficial electrification plans, including programs targeted for low-income or disadvantaged households.

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.