Denver City Council declined for now to ban natural gas hookups in newly built homes as a way to combat climate change, tabling the question as part of a larger revision to building codes that were praised by many as progressive and environment-friendly.
A coalition of climate and environmental justice advocates had asked a key city council committee to amend the new building code to include a ban on fossil fuel hookups, saying full electrification of new homes will send another signal that Denver is a national climate change leader.
But the council’s land use and transportation committee said it needed more study of such a sweeping change, and sent the new building codes on to a full council vote in January without the gas prohibition. The revised code took months of revision by city and citizen advisory committees for both commercial and residential buildings, and includes “green codes” altering energy and water use meant to address environmental concerns.
“There’s always benefits and there’s always burdens to every proposal,” committee chair Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said. “What are those benefits and what are the burdens that we are putting on people? I don’t know those and I don’t think any of us do at this time.”
Sandoval encouraged Councilman Jolon Clark, who had considered bringing the natural gas ban amendment, to continue working with city officials to study it. Clark said the building codes can always be amended after passage, and he would target a decision on a natural gas ban in new home construction by late spring.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech said other cities that have implemented natural gas bans have phased it in over 12 to 18 months after passage to give builders and suppliers fair warning.
Proponents of the ban said building codes need to recognize new homes will stand for decades, if not centuries, and that designing in cleaner electric equipment from the beginning is far easier and more beneficial to the environment than allowing natural gas hookups.
Issuing the natural gas halt as Denver grows is even more relevant given another item on Tuesday’s committee agenda, noted Christine Brinker of Southwest Energy Efficiency Project: the council will vote whether to refer a change to Denver voters erasing the conservation easement covering Park Hill Golf Course. If the easement is removed by voters, developers can add hundreds of new homes and commercial buildings to the area, in addition to a regional park.
“Every single fossil fuel connection locks us in for decades and we just don’t have that luxury anymore,” said Brinker, who said Crested Butte had recently passed a natural gas ban for new construction.
Other metro area communities have fought policy battles over natural gas. Arvada’s initial Geos community was designed to be carbon neutral, without gas hookups. A developer who acquired part of the property, however, declined to commit to a gas ban in building the next phase of housing, and the existing residents found they had no recourse.
The ban was not included in the overall code revisions after months of technical advisory work, in part because things have changed drastically since then, Brinker and other coalition supporters said.
The federal Inflation Reduction Act passed this year includes billions of dollars in subsidies for builders and homeowners to switch to clean electricity appliances like heat pumps and hot water heaters, making the transition easier. In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has severely disrupted worldwide natural gas supplies and sent prices soaring, with many Colorado homeowners seeing near doubling of their heating bills this winter.
“I personally saw my gas bill skyrocket this month,” said Alana Miller, policy director in Colorado for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And I feel deeply for all of the families that are forced to pay for these decisions right now. Electric prices are more stable over time, and with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, we have an unprecedented opportunity that Denver should now maximize.”
There was a short debate about portions of the new code governing how many and what form of preparation for electric vehicle charging should be required in new buildings. City officials said they were revising Denver’s requirements downward to match more realistic codes in other cities, and to avoid builders spending on extra hookups that would never be used.
Green code advocates, architects and other planners praised other features of the new codes. Officials explained that the heart of the codes for designers and builders provides a menu of ways to meet efficiency targets in energy use, electrification, and water savings. Denver does not order which methods must be used, but allows designers to pick a certain number of options from lists.
The regulations, while for now leaving out the ban on natural gas in homes, do include all-electric requirements for space and water heating in new commercial buildings. The regulations also include targets for landscaping water efficiency and recycling of waste from building deconstruction, among other green code items.
The codes as passed onto City Council, without the natural gas ban, strike the right balance, said Elizabeth Gillmor, principal founder of Energetics Consulting Engineers and a member of the revision committees.
“I’m happy with how the residential energy code ended up with electrification highly, highly incentivized,” Gillmor said, “rather than mandated.”