Writer Bill McKibben, who in his mid-60s learned to alpine ski at Snowmass last year, says that if we hope to avoid the persistent heat, drought and fire we’ve experienced recently, we can no longer build anything that leads to a flame. What does he mean? In short, if you heat a new building with gas, it will emit CO2 and methane for the next 50 years. Heat and cool it with electricity, however, and that structure’s carbon footprint declines every year as the grid adds more and more renewable power. No flame, no pain.
The Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys have always had a role in modeling climate solutions for the rest of the county. Aspen’s Renewable Energy Mitigation Program was the country’s first carbon tax. Holy Cross Energy, even beyond its current renewable energy leadership, was one of the first utilities in the nation to offer a green power purchase program. Today, new technologies once again offer a way to speed up our region’s response to climate change as a prototype for the country.
One of the best ways to address greenhouse gas emissions is to improve building codes, and this region has done a phenomenal job in that area. But fully decarbonizing the built environment — as will be required to meet meaningful emissions goals like those targeted in the Paris Accord and in Colorado by HB-1261 and Governor Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap — is going to be quite difficult. Electrification is a key solution.
We are respectfully asking local government officials to begin exploring a range of strategies that can enable new and old building electrification. Many communities have already implemented electrification codes, ranging from a complete ban on natural gas in new buildings, to incentive-based systems. Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency’s REMP program offers another, albeit weaker, approach: a fee on new installed gas.
A great primer on electrification codes, including adoptable language, is available from the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. This isn’t radical: multiple local, all-electric projects are already built or in the works, ranging from luxury condos in Snowmass to employee housing in Basalt. But it is urgent.
Based on the age of subdivisions in the valley, many residents will soon need to replace their old gas boilers and water heaters. Beyond some Holy Cross rebates for heat pumps, there is no incentive to go electric. Local installers are not trained up on technology or installation because they don’t know if it will be worth it. Yet the lack of installers is part of what’s making the switch difficult. One path forward would be to require new builds to be all-electric and retrofits to meet super-low carbon emission standards. That would enable the installer base to grow, provide homeowners with knowledgeable advisers, and bring costs down.
Thanks to Holy Cross Energy, we’ll be receiving low-carbon and ultimately zero-carbon energy, meaning all-electric buildings will naturally be net zero, even without solar panels. The sooner we can get to that clean future, the better.
Auden Schendler is senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. Ted White is executive chair of Rocky Mountain Institute. Both live in Basalt.