Written by Ron Bennett

At one of Governor Polis’ recent Build Back Stronger listening sessions, he described the upcoming federal relief bill as “a once in a generation opportunity” and said he’s “excited about conservation, environment, renewable energy, [and] recycling as a way to build a lasting benefit for the people of Colorado that can be catalyzed by a one-time investment that creates jobs now.”

Between COVID relief bill H.R. 133 and the 2021 American Rescue Plan, the state expects to receive over $40 billion in federal funds, including about $4 billion in “flexible aid,” according to Aaron Ray from the state budget office. The listening session I attended focused on these flexible funds, which are intended as a local complement to federal spending and include “transformative investments that position Colorado to succeed and lead a brighter future.”

As an architect and climate activist, I cannot think of a better investment than rapid decarbonization across our energy economy. The building sector represents about a quarter of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonizing here means constructing and retrofitting buildings to minimize the use of carbon-intensive materials while preparing our buildings to participate in a sustainable energy economy based entirely on renewables.

Architects and engineers envision our buildings as a node on an intelligent energy network with smart communication between grid, building systems, on-site renewable energy sources and storage, including EV’s. Efficiency features such as demand response or “smart grid” technology are akin to the internet as we know it, while burning fossil fuels is like using a fax machine: obsolete.

What follows is a suggested blueprint for the rapid energy transition of Colorado’s building sector at this pivotal time with these much-needed funds.

Incentivize a Rapid Energy Transition

Demand side management (DSM) programs encourage consumers to use less energy by offering rebates and incentives. Gas DSM programs aim to reduce the cost of energy needed to run our buildings by incentivizing efficiency measures, advanced equipment like heat pumps and thermal solar.

Colorado HB21-1238, sponsored by Rep. Bernett and Sen. Hansen, aims to save utility customers over a half-billion dollars through 2030 while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by tens of millions of tons. The bill proposes to adjust metrics that the Public Utilities Commission uses to evaluate utility incentive programs, favoring decarbonization to achieve emissions reductions and energy savings.

Gas and electric DSM programs could add thousands of good quality, skilled jobs – across the fields of energy engineering and auditing, insulation, weatherization, refrigeration, plumbing, mechanical, and solar.

Why not double-down on the incentives utilities offer with state funds to expand and enhance EnergySmartColorado programs for Colorado homes and businesses? With some building codes still catching-up, rebates and incentives (in addition to tax credits) are driving the construction industry toward greater efficiency, electrification, and lower utility costs for consumers.

Invest in Clean Energy Innovation

Energy research and development are vital for Colorado to play a lead role in the new energy economy. Monopolies stifle innovation. Imagine what the internet might look like today if decades ago it was decided that CompuServe would be the only service provider.

A community choice energy study bill HB21-1269 sponsored by Reps. Hooton, Kipp and Sen. Donovan is as timely as it is important, but it begs the question: must we wait two years for a study to tell us that competition in the marketplace is good for consumers and spurs innovation? Now’s the time to roll out innovative energy infrastructure that supports demand response, distributed generation, resilient microgrids, and other smart grid technology.

For buildings to participate in this energy revolution they must be highly efficient and 100% electric. Beneficial electrification bill SB21-246 sponsored by Sen. Fenberg is modelled on existing DSM policies but specifically promotes efficiency measures and electric equipment over less efficient fossil-fuel-based systems. Accelerating the inevitable transition to all-electric buildings powered by renewable energy sources.

The transition to renewables will require new ideas and innovation in technology, finance, economics, governance and deployment to achieve success quickly. Let’s employ a lot of smart and skilled people in the process. We’ve got the sunshine, the know-how, and some federal money for Colorado to assume a global leadership position.

Consider the Real Cost of Fossil Fuels

The supply-side of the building energy equation is also fraught with problems, as most buildings in Colorado are heated with fracked gas. Fugitive methane leaking from wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas when evaluated over a twenty-year period. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proposes cutting methane emissions as our best chance to slow climate change now.

“Committing to no new fossil fuel infrastructure and an ambitious 45 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030 would be a valuable investment in the future of our people and planet.” Inger Andersen Executive Director UNEP

SB21-200, sponsored by Sens. Winter and Mereno and Rep. Jackson doesn’t ban new infrastructure but proposes to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) while increasing environmental justice. Defining GHG as a regulated pollutant will allow the state to set an emissions fee on them. With this financial disincentive, emissions from all energy sectors — including fugitive methane from oil and gas operations — will decrease. The bill, while not perfect, does address buildings by requiring rulemaking to reduce GHG emissions from the built environment.

HB21-1286, sponsored by Reps. Kipp and Valdez and Sens. Pettersen and Priola, requires the collection and reporting of energy use in large buildings. Gathered data will be the basis for publicly available, interactive digital maps and lists. Compliance with energy performance standards must be demonstrated by building owners every five years starting in 2027.

Using verified data is central to any science-based approach to climate. Perhaps with good data and appropriate metrics, improving building performance while reducing reliance on fracked gas will become the priority it should be. In the meantime, using some of that federal money to put people to work reducing methane leakage and capping leaky and abandoned wells would be a great start that’s long overdue.

Ron Bennett, AIA

If I’ve sparked your interest in building electrification, please join me and energy engineer Amy Allen as we present “Electrification Coast to Coast” on May 13th at 6:00 PM. We’ll compare building electrification projects, codes, and incentives from a handful of cities across the nation to those available here in Colorado.

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