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The town of Crested Butte, Colorado already utilizes solar power on its Public Works building, shown on February 22, 2023. As of January 1, 2023 all newly constructed residential and commercial buildings must be all electric for heating, hot water and appliances. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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CRESTED BUTTE — After a year-long survey of residents, a search for “the soul of Crested Butte” has led this end-of-the-road mountain town to be the first municipality in Colorado to become all-electric. 

“This is buying into our community values,” Crested Butte Town Manager Dara MacDonald said. “I mean you are coming here for here, right? Well this is what ‘here’ is. I think as mountain towns, we have not held to our principles quite strongly enough in some cases. This is holding to our values.”

Crested Butte joins Aspen with an overhaul of building codes focused on reducing the busy mountain towns’ contributions to a changing climate. With mandates to turn away from burning fossil fuels in homes, the mountain communities are pushing beyond what is required and hoping to become models for how larger cities can transform residential impacts on climate change. 

Crested Butte’s first comprehensive plan, called the Community Compass, was assembled over  many public meetings and approved last year. It is a sort of manifesto of community values that calls for urgency in the fight to thwart a warming climate. 

The town’s 2019 climate action plan set the stage for all-electric new construction, starting with town-owed affordable housing projects. So when the town updated its building codes last year, the town council approved a plan “to go above and beyond,” Crested Butte planner Mel Yemma said. 

This year Crested Butte became the first municipality in Colorado to require all new homes and commercial construction be powered by electricity, with no natural gas for heating, hot water or appliances. 

MacDonald credits the town council for studying the particulars on cost and efficiencies of an all-electric community. “In the end, it was almost like it was obvious to our town council that this was the right thing to do.” 

The compass also identifies four values that define and guide Crested Butte: authenticity, connection, accountability and boldness. “The council got to a place where we feel like we were able to really articulate clearly what Crested Butte is and what the soul of Crested Butte is,” MacDonald said.

Crested Butte Town Manager, Dara MacDonald, in her office at town hall on Feb. 22. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The community’s five-year plan will be filtered through those values. That plan calls for addressing challenges through increased public engagement, accommodating growth while maintaining the valley’s rural feel, helping residents who live and work in the town thrive, de-emphasizing car travel, caring for the natural environment and acting with urgency to reduce the town’s impact on climate change. It’s all compiled in a glossy brochure that Yemma and MacDonald distribute in all corners of the East River Valley. 

“We are going to be the testing ground.”

For years, Crested Butte, and many other mountain towns, have been reacting, making swift responses to complex problems like the housing crisis, overwhelming crowds, a reduced workforce, the explosion of short-term rental homes, impacts to the backcountry and vehicle traffic. 

The pressures of the pandemic’s tide of newcomers to remote mountain valleys ebbed last year, giving Crested Butte’s leaders an opportunity to step back from reacting and make a plan, Yemma said, unfolding the Crested Butte Community Compass brochure.

“It’s a unique time,” she said. “We have some work to do and we want to put all these resources to good use to really retain the authenticity of Crested Butte.”

It’s not just new construction that’s ditching gas in Crested Butte. The town’s Crested Butte’s Green Deed program launched in 2021 to help residents in deed-restricted housing pay for energy efficiency upgrades. The town council recently upped its contribution to the program to $100,000 a year and there’s a waitlist of residents lined up for the efficiency grants. 

Each grant helps electrify existing buildings, which are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the valley.  

“We thought, well our deed-restricted housing is a quarter of our housing stock so let’s restart with those to help ensure those homes can stay affordable when it comes to monthly utility bills and actually start lowering energy use too,” Yemma said. 

A Crested Butte Marshall’s patrol car charges up in the lot of the Public Works Department on February 22, 2023. The department utilizes two electric patrol cars. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

MacDonald and Yemma said studies by engineering groups that advised the town showed a 2,500 square-foot home with electric appliances and heating is cheaper to build than a home with gas when weighing utility rebates and the cost of running gas lines to the home.

One of the challenges in the electrification movement is the availability of electricians and mechanical experts who can help shepherd the town’s new building guidelines. But that’s a problem that is challenging construction across Colorado. The town is working with the Gunnison County Electric Association to create incentives to lure more electricians to the valley and offering training sessions and webinars for builders to learn more about the town’s upgraded building codes. 

The Town of Crested Butte will be the first property owner to come online with all-electric homes, with the new multi-family Mineral Point affordable housing project underway and duplexes and triplexes breaking ground this spring. All the new housing will be electric, with solar arrays and electric vehicle charging stations.

“We are going to be the testing ground for that,” said MacDonald, noting that the new housing projects will help get local builders “trained up on our dime.”

Builders in Crested Butte work on maybe one or two commercial buildings and about 20 homes a year. So the new policy will not be an instant shift.

“We are not turning off the gas tomorrow. We recognize that natural gas is here for the foreseeable future,” MacDonald said. “We are not changing the world. But we are showing that it can be done.” 

But the end of natural gas is on the horizon in Crested Butte. (Except in commercial kitchens. The town’s restaurants can still have gas.)

Grid capacity, heating concerns

Yemma said building permits are being issued and builders are adapting to the end of gas. Other communities are taking notice of Crested Butte’s new building codes and electrification plan. 

“We’ve been getting quite a few calls from different jurisdictions to present to them,” Yemma said, detailing the town’s presentations to Eagle County’s Climate Action Collaborative, the city of Denver, the Mountain Towns Solution Project and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. 

Christine Brinker, the buildings policy manager at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, has spent years working with communities to develop building codes that reduce impacts and consumption. She calls Crested Butte “a trailblazer” in the move away from natural gas and she’s especially excited to see the effort in a cold-climate town. 

There’s a lot of hand wringing over electric heat pumps in very cold weather and the ability to keep a building warm without a gas-fired furnace. Brinker calls that fretting “outdated.” Newer heat pumps can work down to 20 below zero, she said. 

“We are working to correct outdated information and we think it’s exciting to see a community in a cold climate like Crested Butte proving that it can be done,” she said. “This move to electric is realizable, feasible, practical and beneficial and Crested Butte is showing us how to get it done.”

Brinker hopes Crested Butte’s electrification can be a model. While the town spent many months vetting its new building codes in the community, the effort pales to proposed shifts in urban communities, where advisory groups and committee meetings can slow transitions away from fossil fuels by many years. 

Opposition to a hastened rejection of natural gas can  slow the process too. Gas companies, not surprisingly, are urging a more careful shift, especially in colder climates. 

Atmos Energy, which delivers natural gas to about 120,000 customers in Colorado and around 1,000 in the East River Valley, warned the Crested Butte council that abandoning natural gas would spike costs and greenhouse gas emissions with increased demand for electricity produced by coal-burning power plants. 

The company’s vice president of marketing, Rob Leivo, sent a letter to Crested Butte’s council in July, urging a slower rollout of the electrification plan. Leivo said the all-electric mandates “leave the community no choice but to face increased challenges in the area of energy reliability and resilience.”

He warned that household energy costs could increase by $1,000 a year under the new electrification plan. 

“More than three-quarters of homes in Colorado consume natural gas, illustrating that nearly all Coloradans with access to natural gas choose to use it, so we strongly encourage the communities we serve to preserve customer choice and focus on the true goal of reducing emissions rather than supporting specific fuels or technologies,” Atmos spokesman Kurtis Paradisa said in an emailed statement. 

Brinker, with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said large energy grids are built to withstand huge air conditioning demands in regions where summer temps can hover above 100 degrees. 

“They have a lot of capacity in the winter to add increased heating loads,” she said. 

She does not expect to see electrical grids overwhelmed by small community transitions and a focus on electric power for new home construction. 

“The rate at which we are adding electrification matches the ability to add capacity,” she said. 

Gary Hartman has been designing homes in Gunnison County since 2004. The architect isn’t sure the technology is there to handle the demands for heating in the valley. 

Look at Dallas, the architect said. It can be 105 degrees outside and air conditioners work to keep homes around 70 degrees. In Crested Butte, gas-fired furnaces work to keep homes at 70 degrees when it can be 20 below zero outside. 

“I think we may be pushing heat pumps beyond their capacity. I don’t know if the grid can handle the additional demands,” he said. “We are talking about frozen pipes; burst pipes. And potential people freezing to death if power demand can’t be met.”

Hartman said electric rates will start climbing as utilities work to meet the increased demand without coal-fired power plants. 

“Crested Butte is really pushing the envelope because it’s the politically correct thing to do and they want to be that aggressive community that sets an example, regardless of whether they are right or wrong,” Hartman said. “I hope that when they evaluate the risks that are coming down the pipeline, they will react the right way.”

Crested Butte is one of a dozen towns where voters approved a real estate transfer tax before the 1990 passage of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which limits government spending. That transfer tax coffer is overflowing. The town’s sales and lodging tax collections are up 70% from the 2018-19 ski season through the 2021-22 ski season. Summer sales tax collections are up 32% from 2019 to 2022. 

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State and federal grants supporting affordable housing are rolling in. It’s a once-in-a-generation surplus of funds. 

“We are trying to invest in the things that are most meaningful for our town,” MacDonald said, noting that the town is spending millions on water and wastewater infrastructure and is “digging deep on transit, transportation and mobility.” 

“We are about to launch a big planning effort around transportation and I would expect we will see some pretty bold moves … trying to get people out of the cars.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins