The news in April that federal regulators have proposed downgrading the ozone status for Denver and the northern Front Range from “serious” to “severe” should come as a wakeup call. Our region has a major smog problem.
As our city, county, and state leaders develop plans and budgets to deliver the air-quality relief our communities need, a major source of air pollution that has previously been overlooked no longer can be ignored: our homes and buildings.
Seventy percent of Colorado’s homes burn gas for heating. Although burning fossil fuels like gas is the primary cause of the continued heating of the earth’s climate, this figure represents more than just a climate problem. It is also a major threat to our health and a substantial factor in the worsening air pollution crisis in Denver and the northern Front Range.
Burning gas for heating and cooking produces nitrogen oxide pollution, which leads to the formation of ozone, or “smog.” In the nine Northern Front Range counties with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, fossil fuel appliances in residential and commercial buildings emit more nitrous oxide pollution than power plants, oil refineries and cement plants combined, according to EPA data.
Colorado can tackle this source of smog-causing pollution, protect our health, and achieve steep reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by transitioning our homes from fossil gas to clean electricity for heating.
Change at this scale may seem daunting at first, but we have all the technologies we need to transition homes off of fossil fuels, while locking in more affordable energy bills. I know, because I do this on behalf of Coloradans every day.
Many people aren’t aware they can make a significant positive impact on climate change and air pollution in their homes. That is one reason I co-founded Helio Home, in Denver, which upgrades homes to run on clean electricity. By making one-time changes to the systems that heat and cool our homes, cook our food, heat water, and power our cars, we can achieve significant environmental and health benefits year after year.
We don’t need to invent anything new, but we do need to re-imagine how we power our homes to do these basic tasks. By taking advantage of ultra-efficient and reliable appliances such as induction cooktops and heat pumps and powering them with solar energy, homeowners or property managers lock in more affordable energy bills for households, while cutting fossil fuel pollution and improving the comfort of our homes.
Helio installs high-performance heat pumps that keep homes warm and comfortable even in extremely cold climates where temperatures drop to negative 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Other models continue to perform well when temperatures drop to negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Building all-electric new homes with heat pumps is cheaper than building gas-heated ones. In Denver, all-electric construction is, on average, $3,000 cheaper and heat pumps’ high efficiency results in approximately 2% savings on energy bills, according to RMI.
My company has found substantially larger savings in other parts of Colorado. In Louisville, where we are helping families and their contractors build back all-electric following the devastating Marshall Fire last winter, an all-electric home can be $1,000-$4,000 cheaper to build, and 25% cheaper to heat than when using gas. In addition to upfront savings, homeowners who equip their homes with heat pumps and solar will continue to cash in over the long term, thanks to $10,000 to $20,000 in lower equipment costs and utility bills.
In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers approved a suite of bills designed to improve energy efficiency and accelerate building electrification statewide. One law signed by Gov. Jared Polis will create a 10% tax credit and a state sales-tax exemption for the purchase of heat-pump systems. This incentive will increase the number of heat-pump systems installed statewide from about 2,500 in 2023 to 33,000 in 2032, according to analysis by legislative staff.
It’s a good starting point, but the urgency of our state’s climate and air quality crises demand we move even faster.
Financial incentives to homeowners are critical, and fortunately, the city of Denver is leading on this effort. With $3 million in annual funding for three years, the city created a rebate program that provides up to $9,000 for installing a cold-climate heat pump. This is in addition to rebate programs offered by Xcel Energy that provide $800 for homeowners to install heat pumps. It’s another good starting point, but if we truly want to accelerate adoption of heat pumps we need to aim much bigger.
If we let kitchen-table common sense and our love for creative solutions guide us, we can protect our homes, tackle our city’s air pollution crisis, and solve our state’s climate challenges all at the same time.
Eric Reinhardt, of Denver, is co-founder and CEO of Helio Home.