Crested Butte, Energy, Environment, Featured, Jake Fogleman, Uncategorized

Crested Butte first to ban natural gas; stringent new energy codes ignore grid reliability issues

A few weeks back I wrote about how Crested Butte, a mountain town plagued by a housing affordability crisis, was considering becoming the first jurisdiction in Colorado to force electrification on nearly all new commercial and residential construction in an update to its building codes.

Now it appears that the town has formally adopted the most stringent green codes in the state.

Per the Crested Butte News:

“Crested Butte will be the first municipality in Colorado to require that new residential and commercial construction be basically all electric and not utilize natural gas for heating, hot water heating and appliances starting next January. With the unanimous approval by town council on Tuesday, August 2 of the updated 2021 International Building Code that included some “above code” standards dealing with energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicle readiness and electrification the town lays claim to being the first in the state to pass such a mandate banning most natural gas in new buildings, but the town does not expect to be the last.”

Indeed, the town likely won’t be the last, and it certainly won’t be the last to at least try. So-called beneficial electrification is all the rage among certain factions of Colorado lawmakers and regulators. Whether or not it is something truly “beneficial” for all seems to matter not.

The limits of electrification

At the state level, the recently passed House Bill 1362 seeks to encourage the same outcome, albeit in a subtler way, by mandating pre-wiring for electrified buildings as a code baseline for jurisdictions across the state. While it does not ban natural gas, it sets the stage for localities to do so at a later date. In the same legislative session, House Democrats also rejected a bill that would have protected natural gas from bans at the local level.

Likewise, regulators at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) are currently considering what the state’s gas utilities have described as a “de facto gas ban” as part of the state-mandated Clean Heat Plan proceedings. Under the proposal, developers—which ultimately means consumers—would be forced to cover the entire cost of new natural gas lines in new building developments, placing a thumb on the economic scale to “encourage” customers to pursue electrification.

But by adopting the “above code” standards this week, Crested Butte becomes the first jurisdiction in the state to be explicit in its aims. And it did so over some vocal opposition from community members justifiably concerned with cost and reliability.

“As an architect for 30 years, this is by far the most difficult climate zone I’ve worked in,” said Gary Hartman. “When the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining to generate electricity there will be gaps in the electric grid. We’re not California. There are temperature gaps here of 100-degrees. It is not a matter of if but when we have power outages. That is dangerous. I also see a problem with liability. The town is stepping beyond building science into building philosophy.”

Mr. Hartman is right to raise concerns about climate zone and grid reliability issues. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a regulatory body overseeing grid operations across the United States, warned earlier this year that the grid zone encompassing Colorado faced a particular risk of electricity shortfalls in the late-afternoon and early evening hours this summer when high demand typically meets reduced generating capacity from a grid increasingly reliant on solar power.

Price hikes, capacity shortfalls

Adding further demand on an already strained electric grid could be a recipe for surging electricity prices and capacity shortfalls.

Likewise, the Mountain West’s unique climate creates further difficulty for residents reliant on all-electric heating. Research from the Home Innovation Research Lab has found that in colder climates, electric heat pumps—the alternative to natural gas heating—are not as efficient and result in higher energy use costs of $238 to $650 annually compared to a gas house with high efficiency equipment.

In addition to potentially raising energy costs in cold climates, stringent green building codes also risk boosting upfront costs for homebuyers, exacerbating housing affordability issues. This too, was a concern raised by some residents in Crested Butte.

“We seem to be rolling a rock up the hill with affordable housing and there is nothing mentioned about how this will reduce housing costs,” said resident Don Horvat. “This will likely raise the prices. I think the town should slow walk this and do more analysis.”

Rather than heed the affordability concerns of residents in a town where the median home listing price was $1.7 million as recently as June, town lawmakers appeared more interested in being green policy pioneers.

“It is bold to talk about the cost to the environment and use that as part of a decision,” said councilmember Gabi Prochaska. “It’s an investment in the future. Going forward people will see this as the way to cleaner living.”

“I’ve heard a lot about slowing down, but I don’t agree,” said councilmember Jason MacMillan. “We need to speed up. This is a well thought-out initiative.”

We’ll see if residents and developers see it that way in the coming years.


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