Too bold? Too slow?
[ By Mark Reaman ]
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.
The town building codes will now be reviewed every three years and the council did allow some exceptions to the electrification requirements for things such as commercial kitchens which will still be permitted to use natural gas. Solar panels will be required on large commercial construction and new buildings will at a minimum have to be solar ready and electric vehicle ready.
During Tuesday’s meeting, opinions both for and against an electrification mandate were voiced from a full council chamber, in letters and through Zoom.
“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.”
Don Horvat suggested the council slow down and analyze the cost impact of such a move on workforce housing. “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. This will likely raise the prices. I think the town should slow walk this and do more analysis. Colorado still relies a lot on coal to generate electricity.”
Rich Evans also thought the council was moving too fast. “You guys are overreaching your authority with this,” he said. “We don’t have the infrastructure in place to do this. You are taking away the rights of homeowners who may prefer natural gas. I find it an incredible overreach of government to tell people what they can do with their property. Blackouts in winter will be dangerous.”
Jeff Delaney said that the Gunnison County Electric Association and its energy suppler Tri-State Electricity and Generation is comfortable with the electrification idea and Tri-State has committed to using 70% renewable energy sources to produce electricity by 2030. “The resiliency of the grid can handle it,” he said.
Donny Davol said the other elements in the revised building code made the electrification piece more holistic and workable in a worst-case scenario where there was a blackout. He pointed out that natural gas would still be used for power plants when needed when there were gaps with sunlight and wind. “Let’s use it where it makes sense,” he said. “This action is a small impact and natural gas is not being taken away from anyone who has it. You can analyze how it all worked in three years and re-evaluate. This is an investment for our grandkids.”
Rebecca White owns one of the 58 unbuilt residential lots in town that would fall under the new regulations. “We’re looking at building on that lot and including an affordable accessory dwelling,” she said. “I’m concerned with the infrastructure. I think you should go a little slower. I’m also concerned if current rebates for things like solar panels go away.”
“The current energy mix we use is cleaner than natural gas,” said Emily Artale. “The amount of homes that would be powered by all electric is a blip and GCEA says they have no concerns about serving this. Natural gas is also now being recognized as an in-home health concern. That’s another reason to move to electrification.”
Randy Butler of Atmos Energy said the gas company serves 1,000 customers in Crested Butte. He said the company opposed the move and said natural gas is a valuable tool that provides a reliable delivery system. “We think you should consider allowing more time for public input. Residential and business owners should shape the building codes that fit for Crested Butte. We strongly encourage Crested Butte to allow customer choice.”
Margot Levy is a customer of Atmos but she said it was “important for the town to act in a way that supports our goals and values. People will adjust and technology will move along.”
Christine Brinker lives on the Front Range and analyzes electrification for a living. She said while Crested Butte would be the first with such a mandate, the town would not be alone. “Other communities are heading there,” she said. “You’re not sticking your neck out too far. And the threat of widespread outages being talked about are overstated.”
August Hasz of Resource Engineering Group (REG) has been working with the town as a technical advisor. He said all-electric homes are becoming more common and there was no clear answer when it came to cost comparisons between electric and natural gas because so many alternatives were available for each method. He noted that with Tri-State’s commitment to renewables they have decommissioned three coal plants and still use natural gas in certain situations. “The grid is changing,” he stated.
Council asked staff a few questions about flexibility and affordability but were quickly in support of the move.
“The small size of our town gives us the opportunity to see if this works in the next three years,” said councilmember Beth Goldstone. “The science is there to move forward.”
“We would all like to live in a world where government doesn’t impose this type of mandate,” said councilmember Anna Fenerty. “In times of crisis however, decisions need to be made and made with public input. Is this time of crisis worthy of taking such steps and leading the way?
“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.”
“This has been coming for three years. 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. It is possible now and I think we should do it. The time to transition is now”
“It is cost effective, and I would say it is not particularly bold,” said mayor Ian Billick. “Natural gas has lots to offer but the longer we wait to transition, the more we put on our kids.”
“As someone who lives in affordable housing in Anthracite Place that is all electric, I will say my utility bills are almost nothing,” added Fenerty.
Billick pointed out that the council all agreed with the sprinkler requirements mandated for duplex or larger buildings that generated some cost questions at the last meeting, so there was no discussion over that issue. With that, the council voted 5-0 to adopt the recommended building code upgrades. Councilmembers Chris Haver and Mallika Magner were not at the meeting. The plan is to reach out to local builders and familiarize them with the new regulations over the next six months before they go into effect in 2023.