Crested Butte Bans Natural Gas in New Construction — A New Statewide Trend?

Given our commitment to addressing climate change, one of my favorite email newsletters is “Big Pivots,” written by Allen Best of Arvada, The mission of his non-profit is to document, understand and educate about the changes made necessary by climate change.

Among those changes is the transition from fossil-fuel heating of homes and water using natural gas and propane now that electric heat pump units are practical and affordable.

The latest Big Pivots email newsletter (which you can subscribe to at bigpivots.com) was about Crested Butte’s recent decision to outlaw natural gas in new construction. Rather than rewrite what Allen wrote, here is his article with some minor edits:

By ALLEN BEST

Crested Butte, a one-time coal mining town, has now turned its back on natural gas. Town councilors unanimously agreed that any new building erected on the 60 vacant lots cannot be served by gas. Major remodels must be electric-ready. It’s Colorado’s first natural gas ban, although 80 other jurisdictions around the country have taken similar measures.

“There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way,” said Crested Butte Mayor Ian Billick. “Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.”

Billick arrived at Crested Butte several decades ago as a biologist at the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Many experiments there have focused on the effects of warming temperatures on existing plants. One experiment involving year-round heat lamps specifically foretells a shift from the showy wildflowers for which Crested Butte is famous to an ecosystem dominated by sagebrush.

Temperatures continue to creep higher, but at more than 8,900 feet in elevation, Crested Butte still has chilly winters. The overnight temperature during January averages 6 below.

The takeaway here is that if Crested Butte is comfortable with the replacement technologies for natural gas, most other places in Colorado should be, too. Instead, builders are still tethering tens of thousands of homes and other new buildings each year to natural gas pipelines.

Denver and Boulder have taken steps to push alternatives. Here and there individual action has occurred. In Westminster, John Avenson in 2017 ordered his natural gas meter removed after maximizing the passive solar potential of his house. (YouTube video tour of John’s home.) In Arvada, Norbert Klebl developed 30 homes without natural gas in a project called GEOS. In Basalt, two affordable housing complexes have been built without natural gas. An all-electric hotel is under construction in Snowmass. North Vista Highlands is slowly taking shape in Pueblo. In Fort Collins, plans have been drawn up for Montava, a  500-unit project.

We have been pivoting slowly, but the transition is accelerating.

Granted, the generation of electricity still causes atmospheric pollution. Emissions will dramatically drop by 2030, however, as Colorado’s utilities close nine of today’s 10 coal-burning units.

Colorado legislators in 2021 passed several laws that collectively seek to squeeze emissions from our buildings. The laws reflect the state’s political makeup. Colorado may be dominated by Democrats, but it’s still a purplish state. In other words, don’t expect a wave of Crested Butte-type mandates such as occurred in California beginning in 2019. We walk on a different balancing beam.

Most important among Colorado’s legislative squeezes is Senate Bill 21-264, which requires Colorado’s four regulated natural gas utilities to incrementally reduce emissions.

The law identifies several pathways. They can, for example, help customers improve efficiency of buildings, so buildings need less gas to provide comfort. They can augment the methane obtained by drilling with methane diverted from sewage plants, feedlots and other sources. The first of their plans will be filed with state regulators in 2023. The bottom line is that the gas companies will have to adjust their business models.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has now set about creating rules for evaluating clean-heat plans. In filings beginning last December, real estate agents, home builders and even some municipalities have argued that converting from natural gas will add costs. That was the same message at recent meetings in Montrose and Grand Junction. Their message was simple: Don’t change.

In metro Denver’s more affluent northwest suburbs, Christine Brinker of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project reports a draft policy would give builders a choice between either all-electric or natural gas with extra energy efficiency.

Unless a way can be found to cost-effectively sequester carbon emissions, natural gas will slowly be phased out in coming decades. Ironically, the arrival of natural gas was one reason that coal mining ended in Crested Butte in 1952 after a seven-decade run.

Arvada City Council Buys Into a Developer’s False Narrative That New Homes Must Have Natural Gas  

It’s sad to see elected officials not taking the time to learn about new technology, especially technology that contributes to abating the effects of climate change.

Such is the story unfolding in the city of Arvada, where the city council — historically super friendly to developers — has bought into a false narrative by a developer/builder team that all-electric homes are not affordable or desired by today’s home buyers.

This is happening despite the fact that Arvada is itself home to a well known model of affordable all-electric homes in the Geos Community located west of Indiana Street and south of 72nd Avenue.

Geos Neighborhood

The Geos Community was partially built out several years ago without any natural gas lines. Home heating is by geothermal and air source heat pumps. Cooking is on induction cooktops. Heat pump water heaters provide the domestic hot water. Solar panels on each home provide all the electricity needed for these and other needs, making all 26 current homes “net zero energy.”

Before the Geos Community could be fully built out, its original developer was forced into selling due to a divorce settlement. Otherwise the remaining 250 homes — a mix of townhomes and single family homes — would have been built to the same net zero standard.  The new developer had promised to do so, as described in a Nov. 17, 2020, post on MileHighCRE.com, but it reneged on that promise and is in the process of installing natural gas lines to the new homes, greatly annoying and angering the owners of the original 26 homes.

The fossil fuel industry duped all of us by promoting methane as a “natural and safe” gas for use in homes. This gas is highly heat-trapping (80-100 times more so than carbon dioxide), prone to explosion and causes many health issues (see Electric4Health.org). During the last decade Colorado added an average of 20,500 residential  gas customers each year. BigPivots.com reports that our state now has 1.8 million residential gas customers. That trend needs to be reversed. There’s no need to keep building home reliant on natural gas.

Geos homeowners appealed to Arvada’s city council to deny the developer a permit for the gas lines, but the city declined to do so. The neighbors, however, are not giving up and have 267 signatures (including my own) on a petition to reverse that decision. The City of Arvada has advised the current Geos residents that this issue is closed.

Arvada should be proud that it is the home of the country’s first “geosolar” community which has, among other honors, been featured several times in the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. I myself have produced narrated video tours of three Geos homes for that tour, which you can view here, here, and here.

As part of its COP 26 coverage this week in Glasgow, CNN will air a segment on Geos as a home building model to be emulated, essential for addressing climate change.

Our Commitment: Keeping Styrofoam Out of Landfills

One element of Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability is our acceptance of polystyrene in the Styrofoam Corral behind our office on South Golden Road. Perhaps you have wondered what we do with all that Styrofoam.

At least twice every month we fill our truck with what everyone (including us) calls Styrofoam, but that’s a brand name. The generic term is expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS. We take each truckload to Centennial Containers southeast of Peoria Street and I-70. There the material, which is 95% air, is “densified,” compressed into those foot-square bars shown at right, which are then stacked on pallets each weighing over 1,000 pounds. One of our truck loads might make just one of those bars of compressed material! Eventually a semi trailer filled with those pallets is taken to an American company which recycles those bars into new polystyrene or other plastic-based products.

We used to take our loads to Alpine Waste’s recycling facility located northwest of the I-70/I-25 interchange, but they ship their densified polystyrene to China. When China cut down on accepting plastic waste from the United States, we switched to Centennial Containers and have found them easier to work with, too.

Our polystyrene recycling is only one part of Golden Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability which won us our second Sustainability Award from the City of Golden in 2020. Since receiving our first award in 2010, we transitioned our building to Net Zero Energy in 2017 by removing our natural gas meter and installing a heat pump mini-split system to heat and cool our office electrically. Our 20-kW solar photovoltaic system provides all the electricity for powering our office as well as charging our five Tesla vehicles and providing free EV charging to the general public in our parking lot.

Xcel Energy Is Penalizing Small Businesses Which Offer Workplace Charging

Golden Real Estate is justly proud — if I say so myself — of having a Net Zero Energy office, meaning that our solar photovoltaic panels produce all the electricity needed to heat, cool and power our office as well as to the charge the five Teslas owned by our agents and me and offering free EV charging to the general public. (We have four EV charging stations at our office — two for our own use and two for the public.)

Meanwhile, Xcel Energy boasts that it is moving in the direction of 100% renewable energy and facilitating the adoption of electric vehicles. A big part of that is promoting “workplace charging.”

Xcel is right to promote workplace charging over, say, charging stations at retail stores, because cars are parked for up to 8 hours at one’s workplace — long enough to fully charge almost any EV using a standard Level 2 (240V) charging station.

So why is Xcel Energy penalizing small companies like Golden Real Estate which have already installed workplace charging stations for EVs?

As stated above, we generate all the electricity needed at our office on South Golden Road. Until this March, our monthly Xcel bill was under $11 every month — the cost of being connected to Xcel’s electric grid.

But now our Xcel bill is over $300 per month, even though we are still generating all the electricity we use. How can that be?  It’s because one day in March we drew over 30,000 watts of energy during a single 15-minute period, converting us automatically from standard “commercial” service to “demand” service. That means that in addition to the charges for electricity consumption, we are now charged for the highest amount of electricity that we draw during each month.

So our electric bill at Golden Real Estate is now over $300 per month regardless of the amount of actual electricity we consume during any particular month. To put it in numbers, we are charged about $15 per kilowatt for peak demand, and our monthly maximum draw of power is usually about 20 kilowatts.  Thus, we are charged $300 each month even though our net consumption of electricity is zero!

The only way we could draw over 25 kW of electricity at a given time is because we are charging cars at all four charging stations, something Xcel says they want to encourage.

When I communicated my dilemma to Xcel Energy, the response was to tell me that they’re introducing a new EV charging tariff later this summer. Unfortunately, the tariff requires that Xcel install the charging stations and offers nothing to those of us who were early adopters and already have charging stations in place.

Under Xcel’s proposed EV tariff, my penalty would drop to a little over $100 per month. But that’s still a $100 penalty.

The logical solution would be for Xcel to modify its commercial tariff to make the demand threshold 50 or 75 kW instead of 25 kW for forcing small businesses like us into their demand tariffs.

Now some good news.

I made these same arguments during public comments at a May 13th virtual hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) adjudicating an Xcel Energy rate case. This Monday, that ALJ published his ruling and cited my own testimony in ordering Xcel to increase its demand threshold to 50 kW.

I had made the same argument a couple years ago during public comments at a regular PUC meeting, but I got no satisfaction at that time, so I wasn’t expecting to be more successful this time, but I was.

Ironically, I had already written this column with no clue that the ruling was about to be handed down. Indeed, this column was uploaded to three Jeffco weekly newspapers Monday morning without this news.

The ALJ’s ruling has a few more steps before it is finalized.  Parties to the case can make final pleas and seek Commission reconsideration, akin to last ditch arguments, but I’m hopeful that my Xcel bill will return to $10.26/month soon.

Golden Real Estate Wins Sustainability Award

Broker/owner Jim Smith and broker associate David Dlugasch pose with the Golden Sustainability Award in front of their two Teslas.

Back in 2010, Golden Real Estate was awarded the “Sustainability Award for Business” from the City of Golden for the brokerage’s solar-powered office. Eleven years later, we have been awarded this recognition a second time because of how much further we have taken our passion for sustainability.

Back in 2010 we had a 5kW solar array on our roof — enough to power our office, but little else. We had a couple other features — sun tunnels to daylight our office reducing the need for artificial lighting, extra insulation to reduce the amount of natural gas needed to heat the office, and we accepted polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) for recycling.

Now, we have 2 ground-mounted solar arrays adding another 15kW of solar power, providing enough electricity to heat and cool our office with heat pumps and to power our five agent-owned Teslas as well as offering free EV charging to the general public. We had our gas meter removed in 2017 and now our Xcel Energy bill is $10 to $11 per month, which is the cost of being connected to the electric grid. We are now a “net zero energy” facility — and we’re taking two truckloads of Styrofoam to a reprocessing center in Denver every month.

Thanks to “net metering,” the electric grid functions like a battery, receiving our excess energy during sunny days and giving it back to us when we need it. We like to consider our office an example that other businesses can aspire to, and we are grateful for this week’s recognition by Golden. Click on the following 2-minute YouTube video tour of our net zero office:

Lakewood Earth Day 2021 features this video tour of Golden Real Estate’s Net Zero Energy office.

If You Want to Buy or Sell a Solar Powered Home, Call Us

Jim Smith and the broker associates at Golden Real Estate are especially knowledgeable about solar powered and sustainably built homes, so consider us first if you are contemplating buying or selling such a home. Between us, we own every model Tesla vehicle — S, 3, X and Y — so we’re experts in electric vehicles, too. Our solar-powered office is “net zero energy,” with no gas service, and our Xcel Energy bill is $10 per month (the cost of being connected to Xcel’s grid), so we know what we’re talking about. Jim’s home is near-net zero (because he still has natural gas service), and he has a large network of friends with such homes, at least one of whom is planning to sell in 2021. Call Jim at 303-525-1851 if you’d like to talk.

A High-Performance Car Can Kill You. A High Performance Home Can Save Your Life.

I have the best assignment on the steering committee of the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour — shooting video tours of the homes we choose to feature. Because of Covid, I’m taking that assignment more seriously than ever, because we may not have an in-person tour this year. (The tour is on October 3rd.)

I post these tours (along with the video tours of our listings) on my YouTube channel. Go there to check out some of the more recent tours.

Those videos, however, are limited in what they can convey in 7 to 10 minutes, so I must leave out a lot of what I learn during the lengthy orientation I get from each homeowner prior to shooting the video.

A good example was my tour last Saturday of Jen Grauer and Josh Renkin’s house in Denver. They scraped a house and built from scratch the best example of a “high performance home” I have come across yet — and I’ve seen a lot of high performance homes.

My 7½-minute tour of the house that Jen completed three years ago could not include a lot of what makes it such a good example of sustainability, so I’ll add to it here.

To be “net zero energy,” a solar-powered home like Jen’s has to be super insulated and super efficient in its use of energy. When a home is that tight, indoor air quality has to be addressed to make the home safe. That job is performed by an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV).

The ERV’s job is to bring in fresh air from the outside and to expel bad air while maintaining a healthy indoor humidity level. In the typical home, exhaust fans in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms exhaust air to the outside, thereby drawing fresh air into the house only through whatever leaks exist around doors, windows and other penetrations of the home’s “envelope.” An ERV has one dedicated duct to exhaust air and another to bring in fresh, filtered air. This air is circulated through the house via multiple exhaust and fresh air vents around the home. In addition to maintaining indoor air quality, the ERV transfers some of the temperature (and humidity) of the outgoing air to the incoming air when there is a differential between the two.

Let’s say your home is 70 degrees inside, but it’s 100 degrees outside. The temperature of that incoming air can be reduced to, say, 75 degrees by passing it through a heat exchanger where it doesn’t mix with the outgoing air but acquires some of its temperature. Similarly if the outdoor air is below freezing, the ERV might raise that incoming air to, say, 50 degrees. (I could be way off on these numbers. I’m just trying to convey the concept.)

A conditioning ERV (or CERV) monitors the level of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the outgoing air. You can set a level that is acceptable (say, 900 ppm maximum) and the CERV will increase the flow of air when those levels are exceeded to bring them back to the acceptable range. Whereas an ERV runs 24/7, the CERV only needs to turn on to bring the levels of CO2, VOCs and humidity down to set acceptable levels. A CERV also has an internal heat pump to add heat or cooling. (See my videos of John Avenson’s and Jim Horan’s homes.)

In Jen’s case, in addition to an ERV, she made sure that the home was built with low-VOC products. For example, instead of using high-VOC particle board, her cabinets are made with zero-formaldehyde birch plywood and her island is solid maple and waterproofed with a zero-VOC oil. Her home has no wall-to-wall carpeting, which typically has VOCs in it. (These items are mentioned in the video of Jen’s house.)

Radon is another pollutant which seeps into every home through their concrete foundation walls and slab-on-dirt. To further improve air quality, Jen installed a radon mitigation system.

In summary, a high performance home can not only save you money in the long run (it costs more to build but nearly eliminates monthly utility bills), it can also create a home than extends your life through improved indoor air quality.

Discover Arvada’s Geos Community, Where the Homes’ Energy Costs Are Essentially Zero

That’s what it’s like for Jim & Patty Horan, who bought their 3-bedroom, 3-bath, 2,135-sq.-ft. home at 15062 W. 69th Place in Arvada’s Geos Community. They paid $525,000 for it three years ago (July 2017). 

Like all Geos homes, this one has no gas service. With only 6kW of solar panels on the roof, the home is heated by a ground source heat pump. It draws heat from the earth via a 300-foot-deep loop under the home. The heat pump uses very little electricity during the summer to further cool the 55° fluid in that loop, and not much more energy during heating season to heat that fluid to 100 degrees.

On Saturday, June 27th, Jim Horan gave me a tour of his home which I recorded for this fall’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. You can view the video at YouTube.com/jimsmith145.

Geos Community’s website describes it as “Colorado’s first geosolar development” and is the only subdivision I know that’s built entirely “net zero energy.” There are developers building solar-powered communities like KB Home’s subdivision on the northeast corner of Hwy 93 and 58th Ave., but they don’t come close to being net zero.

There’s a term for such homes — “greenwashing,” which Wikipedia defines at “a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.” I’ve always marveled that those KB Homes were built with many of the solar panels installed on north-facing roof surfaces.

Getting back to the Horans’ home, there’s more to going net zero than having solar panels and a ground-source heat pump. Those features must be coupled with energy saving features so that the limited number of solar panels are enough to meet the home’s energy needs — with energy left over to charge an electric car.

Here are some of those features which I covered in my video tour with Jim Horan.

First and foremost is the passive solar orientation of the building with lots of south-facing windows and a south-facing roof for solar panels. Also, there are overhangs above each south-facing window designed to shade it from the sun during the summer while allow full sun in the winter when the sun is lower in the southern sky.

Next, the building’s “envelope” has to be very tight. That starts with foam insulation blown onto the interior surfaces of the roof and exterior walls, replacing the blown-in cellulose and fiberglass batting typical of tract homes built by other developers. The windows are Alpen triple-pane windows which also have foam-insulated fiberglass framing. (Fiberglass is better for window framing than vinyl – not as prone to aging and warping.)

Those elements make a house too air-tight for healthy living, so an energy recovery ventilator is installed which constantly brings in fresh air, using a heat exchanger designed so that the heat (or coolness) of the air being exhausted is used to heat or cool the fresh air being brought into the house. A heat pump within this device, called a CERV, provides further heating or cooling of that fresh air as needed.

In the townhomes at the Geos Community, the CERV works with an air-source heat pump mini-split instead of a ground-source heat  pump to heat and cool the home year-round.

Have you heard the term “indoor air quality” or “sick building syndrome”?  It refers to high levels of CO2 or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can build up in a home, especially in a home as air-tight as the Geos homes.

The CERV monitors both CO2 and VOC levels in the house and will bring in additional fresh air when those gases exceed the level set by the homeowner. (The Horans have the level for each gas set at 950 parts per million, or ppm.)

What are VOCs?  If you can smell it, it’s probably a volatile organic compound. Examples include new carpet smell and, worst of all, cat litter smells.

Two appliances in Geos homes also contribute to their low energy load. One is the Bosch condensation clothes dryer, which pulls in cool, dry air from the room. The air is heated and passed through the clothes; but instead of being vented outdoors, the air travels through a stainless steel cooling device or heat exchanger. It does heat the room it is in, so the Horans choose to dry their clothes on an outdoor line during the summer, even though their heat pump could handle the additional cooling load if they didn’t do that. Home Depot sells the Bosch 300 “ventless” dryer for $989.

The other appliance is the heat-pump water heater. It has a heat pump above the tank which transfers the heat from the room into the water. I’ve written about this product before. Home Depot sells a 50-gallon Rheem model for $1,299 which earns a $400 rebate from Xcel Energy and another $300 in federal tax credit if purchased by December 31, 2020. Because this appliance emits cold air, it’s in a pantry which the Horans keep closed in the winter and open in the summer. (I would put it in a wine cellar or in a room with a freezer, which emits hot air — a symbiotic arrangement within one room.)

As you are beginning to gather, building a net zero energy home is best done from scratch, when the additional cost is less than retrofitting a home. (My home is net zero in terms of electricity, but we still burn $30 to $50 of natural gas each month, and it takes twice as many solar panels for my home, which has about the same square footage as the Horans’.)

You may be wondering how much more it cost to build the Horans’ house, which they bought new in July 2017. To answer that, I searched all the comparable homes (2– or 3-story, between 1,500 and 2,500 square feet within 1 mile radius) sold during the summer months of 2017, and I found that the $246 per finished square foot paid by the Horans was actually below the median price ($253 per finished square foot) for the seven comparable sales. And those homes probably pay thousands of dollars per year more for electricity (and gas) than the Horans.

If you want to learn more about Geos community, give me a call at 303-525-1851 or visit the Geos website, www.DiscoverGeos.com.

John Avenson of Westminster Is a Committed Teacher of Energy Efficiency

The sponsors of the annual Metro Denver Green Homes Tour, held on the first Saturday each October, are preparing to “go virtual” in case an  in-person tour is not allowed.

John Avenson’s house at 9988 Hoyt Place, Westminster

That will be accomplished by creating online video tours of the most notable “green” homes featured over the past 20 years. Since I’m on the steering committee for the tour and have the equipment and experience from creating video tours of homes for sale, I volunteered to create those video tours, starting with John Avenson’s home at 9988 Hoyt Place in Westminster.

By clicking here, you can view the 41-minute video tour, led by John, which I created last Friday. It is highly educational.

John Avenson

Many people, myself included, have created homes which can be considered a “model” of sustainability, solar power, and energy efficiency, but John is surely the only homeowner who has turned his home into a classroom for teaching it. He even posted pictures and diagrams throughout the house with instructional content about this or that feature, as you will see on that video.

He also hosts monthly Passive House meetings in his home theater which are also streamed online. They can be found at www.meetup.com/Passive-House-Meetup-S-W-Region/

John’s house was originally built by the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI, now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or NREL) in 1981 using then-state of the art technology, but John has diligently, and at great personal expense, kept retrofitting his home with newer technology, which he is happy to explain to visitors and which he explains on the 41-minute video.

CERV monitor screenshot

For example, because of increased insulation and Alpen quadruple-paned windows, he was able to get rid of SERI’s supplemental natural gas furnace, installing a conditioning energy recovery ventilator (CERV) which is powered electrically. His grid-tied solar PV system provides all his home’s energy needs and has reduced his Xcel Energy bill to under $10 per month — the cost of being connected to the electrical grid.

Some of the technological innovations featured in my video with John were new to me. For example, the Alpen windows across from his kitchen have horizontal micro-etching which redirects the sun’s rays 90° upward to his ceiling instead of straight through the glass, reducing the need for lighting.

John provided his email address in the video, saying that his “learning center” is open 24/7 and that he welcomes all inquiries and visitors.

Interested in Net Zero Living? Discover Arvada’s Geos Community!

I love showing homes in Arvada’s Geos Community to buyers individually, but there’s a live Zoom presentation sponsored by First Universalist Church of Denver next week which will teach you all you need to know about this great community.

Register for that meeting (Tuesday, May 26, at 7pm) by going to https://bit.ly/FirstU_GEOS.

The homes and townhouses in this community are not only “net zero,” they are “net positive,” creating more energy than the homeowners use, including when they charge an electric car. The homes are so well insulated that they need no furnace, only a CERV, which also monitors and maintains indoor air quality.