Denver may miss major opportunity for advancing housing, climate goals
Early in the new year, the Denver City Council will have an opportunity our city can’t afford to miss. On Jan. 3, they’ll approve a new building code, which sets the rules for constructing buildings and homes citywide. The proposal moves us in the right direction toward our climate goals, but leaves one crucial element undone—it allows for new homes to connect to fossil fuels.
All-electric homes deliver across-the-board advantages for homeowners, developers and builders, our communities’ health, safety, and well-being, clean air, our economy, and our climate. That’s why a coalition of health professionals, green building experts, environmental justice and climate advocates, and thousands of their members in Denver has organized to urge the City Council to amend the Building Code in the new year. The proposed code will require commercial and multifamily buildings to use all-electric space and water heating in most cases. New homes should at least meet the same bar, but 100%-electric is better because homes won’t have gas hookups. This saves thousands of dollars in construction costs because gas piping isn’t installed. After studying this issue in depth, City Council should amend the Building Code to require all-electric new homes this spring, before it’s implemented.
Due to skyrocketing gas prices in Denver, this issue is particularly relevant as we spend more time at home during the winter. Last week, average regional wholesale prices of gas surged a whopping 425% compared to December 2021. Natural gas is no longer affordable for our working families and has never been clean or healthy. All-electric homes rely on the electric grid’s more stable prices and increasing amounts of renewable energy.
In Denver, new all-electric homes can be built for $795 cheaper than those that use gas and save homeowners almost $300 annually in bills, according to new research by RMI. Denver’s all-electric homes also result in approximately 43% lower greenhouse gas emissions over 15 years. These homes rely on highly efficient electric heat pumps to deliver space heating and cooling. Heat pumps are wonderfully effective at creating comfortable living spaces year-round—even when it’s bitterly cold outside—and eliminate the need for gas furnaces and air conditioners.
I grew up in Crested Butte, which in August became the first city in Colorado to require all-electric new construction. I remember vividly how cold the winters can be. It inspires me to see my hometown embrace heat pumps. Mayor Ian Billick has spoken enthusiastically about how existing heat pump technology keeps homes warm and comfortable all winter long. Helio Home, the company I co-founded, installs high-performance systems that work at negative 17℉. A leading heat pump manufacturer is testing a new model that keeps homes warm at negative 23℉. If a cold, wintry place like Crested Butte can go all-electric, Denver can, too.
Denver is restarting its rebate program in January 2023 to help existing homeowners convert to all-electric, and these rebates can be combined with huge incentives from the new federal climate law. It’s so much cheaper to build all-electric from the start, though, rather than force homeowners and incentive programs to shoulder the costs to retrofit later.
All-electric homes also address our air quality crisis, because burning gas for heating and cooking creates nitrogen oxide pollution. When the appliances vent outside, this contributes to the formation of ozone, or “smog.” The air quality crisis in our region has gotten so bad that the EPA declared Denver to be a “severe” violator of federal clean air standards. It’s even worse indoors. New scientific research revealed that cooking on gas stoves dirties the air in our homes with hazardous pollutants while also leaking more pollutants — including carcinogens like benzene — even when off.
All-electric homes result in healthier, pollution-free, and more comfortable living spaces as well as a better quality of life. In 2023, City Council should amend the Building Code to ensure every new home is built this way.
As published in the Denver Post print edition