By Sue McMillin
Electric vehicles, smart houses, solar panels, attic insulation, LED light bulbs and window caulk are all part of the energy transformation that will reduce Coloradans’ use of fossil fuels, benefit the environment and combat climate change.
The wonderful thing about this list is that it includes something everyone can do to assist in our move toward a clean energy environment. As drought conditions strengthen their hold on much of Colorado and weather disasters increase worldwide, most of us feel an urgent duty to “do something.”
That “something,” though, can be different for each of us. Nearly everyone can afford something on that list; what we can’t afford, for the sake of the planet, is to do nothing.
I started what became this two-part series on clean energy with the intent of suggesting that every new rooftop in Colorado (residential or commercial) be required to have solar panels. As usual, though, a good amount of research tempered my gut reaction and led to this endorsement of a more nuanced approach.
While I believe we should harness as much of the sun’s energy as possible, a construction mandate is probably unreasonable and certainly too fraught politically.
Plus, we have many things in the works that will significantly alter Colorado’s energy profile in the next decade.
Coloradans were the first voters in the nation to support a Renewable Energy Standard when they approved Amendment 37 in 2004. It required large power providers to gradually increase renewable energy sources to 15% by 2015. Subsequently, that standard was increased by the state Legislature to 30% by 2020 for smaller providers and to 100% by 2050 for providers with more than 500,000 customers.
Today 30 states have renewable energy requirements.
Colorado also was early to the Community Solar Garden idea. In 2010, the Community Solar Gardens Act allowed independent companies to provide solar gardens. This, in turn, allowed those who couldn’t buy rooftop panels themselves — renters, condo owners, homeowners who don’t want to invest in or can’t install rooftop and such — to become part of the solar community.
A year later, SunShare burst onto the scene, becoming the first community solar company in the nation. Based in Denver, it has developed projects with 116 megawatts of capacity, according to its website. One megawatt will power 400 to 900 homes a year, depending on energy use.
In 2019, the Legislature updated things with the Community Solar Gardens Modernization Act, which increases the size of a solar garden from 2 megawatts to 5 megawatts and allows the Public Utilities Commission to approve up to 10-megawatt gardens. The act also expands who can purchase shares in a community garden.
Also in 2019, the Legislature passed the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution (House Bill 1261), which set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
That was followed up in January 2021 when Gov. Jared Polis released the state Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap proposing how to get there.
It includes such things as a continued move toward renewable energy, shuttering coal plants, reducing methane pollution at oil and gas development sites, reducing vehicle emissions by setting more strict fuel efficiency standards, and public investment in electric vehicle infrastructure.
So, we are moving in the right direction finally, and it appears we’re poised to make significant progress in the next few years.
Yet we must be watchful to ensure we don’t relax these requirements if political winds shift, as they did during the Trump administration.
Policy in action
The Colorado Energy Office helps implement some of the state’s policies through an array of partnerships and programs, such as low-income weatherization and appliance retrofits (including rooftop solar) and encouraging energy-efficient building codes.
The office assists about 2,000 income-qualified homeowners throughout the state annually with things such as attic insulation and replacement of aging furnaces, said Ryan Harry, director of the Weatherization Assistance Program. Next year he expects to add about 1,000 more homeowners with money from the federal infrastructure bill.
About 100 to 200 of those homes get rooftop solar, he said.
“Not all homes are good candidates for solar,” he said. “We can serve 10 to 20% of our clients with rooftop solar.”
Sometimes roofs are too small, or the structure can’t handle the panels; free-standing solar panels are more expensive, and often there isn’t room to accommodate them.
“You can make small inroads with different things,” he said. “We focus on propane-heated homes — if we put heat pumps in homes heated with propane the client ends up saving money as well.”
An estimated 500,000 homes in Colorado qualify for the program, but Harry said doing about 3,000 a year is the most the energy office and its partners can handle.
Where to start
Whether you’re working with a state or local assistance program or going it alone, homeowners seeking energy efficiency should start with a home energy audit. What you learn may surprise you.
The state works with six service providers who primarily serve low-income clients but sometimes offer audits for a fee, which helps cover their other costs. This is offered on a space-available basis.
The Energy Resource Office did such an audit for a me a few years ago when I lived in an old house in Teller County. I wanted to learn how to insulate a house that the home inspector told me had no attic.
The audit was thorough and informative: I had an obscured attic and an old knob and tube electric system that prevented adding insulation until it was replaced. The windows were good, the furnace and water heater efficient. The yard had a beautiful spot for a free-standing solar system.
I never got to the solar system. Electricians working on replacing the knob and tube discovered a rather wet attic, and when a roofing contractor investigated, the roof began to fall in … so my money was spent on other repairs.
Regardless, the audit helped me prioritize home repairs and improvements.
Keith Hay, director of policy for the Colorado Energy Office, said all utilities are required to help with energy efficiency and most offer free or low-cost audits.
You’ll learn where you’re using — and wasting — energy and get suggestions for things such as changing to LED light bulbs, low-flow shower heads and weather stripping.
“That’s not the sexy part of addressing climate change,” Hay said, but it is effective at reducing energy consumption and saving money.
And it may help you plan for converting at least partially to electric in the future.
If you’re buying a new home, go electric. All electric.
As someone who loves cooking on a gas stove, it pains me to write that. But I’ve been assured that the new induction cooktops are pretty good.
There is an entire “beneficial electrification” movement. The nonprofit Beneficial Electrification League suggests moving consumers to electric whenever it: saves money over time; benefits the environment and reduces greenhouse gas emissions; improves product quality or consumer quality of life; or fosters a more robust and resilient grid. It can be any one of those things as long as it doesn’t adversely affect another of them.
In Colorado, it’s called Love Electric, and the website header says, “Revolt.”
Of course, it’s not so simple to convert everything in a home that is equipped with a forced-air gas furnace, a gas water heater and gas appliances. The cost/benefit analysis for an electric heat pump heating and cooling system, for example, is much better for a new home than a retrofit of an older home, the Love Electric website says.
Still, we may be mostly stuck on personal preferences and old beliefs. Yes, the cost of electric baseboard heating was pretty high compared with natural gas, so we ended up with about 68% of American homes today heated by natural gas.
Switching to an electric water heater when you need a replacement, by comparison, is relatively easy. It’s a step.
Yet even attempts to build all-electric neighborhoods haven’t been without controversy.
The 28-home Geos Neighborhood in Arvada claims to be the first geosolar development in the state. But a divorce disrupted plans for the remaining 254 homes, and that parcel was sold to another developer, Colorado Public Radio reported. Controversy erupted when surveying for gas lines started, which a new developer said was necessary because homeowners want gas stoves, CPR reported.
I feel their angst.
But if we want an energy transformation, a stable climate and a cleaner Earth, we’re going to have to get used to change and sacrifice, although induction stovetop fans might disagree about the sacrifice part. Consider it a challenge.
Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado reporter and editor who worked for The Gazette and Durango Herald. Now a regular columnist for The Denver Post and a freelance writer, she lives in Cañon City. Email her at email@example.com.