Every three years, Boulder updates its energy codes. This time around, the city might help push the envelope in Colorado by banning natural gas hookups in new buildings.
Environmental advocates nationwide have pushed for gas hookup bans as crucial in reducing cities’ dependence on fossil fuels and achieving climate emissions goals. And many cities — and some states — are well ahead of Boulder.
Early this year, joining dozens of cities in California and the State of New York, the small mountain town of Crested Butte became the first municipality in Colorado to ban gas in new residential construction. Boulder’s neighbor, Lafayette, has a ban for new commercial buildings and homes coming into effect on Aug. 1. Denver’s ban on gas for commercial construction, meanwhile, begins next year, though only for space and water heating. Ithaca, New York, has gone further than all others with the goal of retrofitting all its buildings to get rid of fossil fuel use by 2030.
Last month, city staff presented the Boulder City Council with ideas for updating its energy code as they seek to decarbonize buildings — the city’s biggest source of climate-warming emissions. Possible mandates included providing onsite solar to offset some gas use and ensuring new builds are all-electric ready for whenever the owner decides to get off gas.
Yet staff didn’t present an option for overall electrification like in Lafayette.
Because of this, Mayor Aaron Brockett called for a “straw poll” to request that staff bring council an option that would require all-electric construction in new buildings in the updated energy code. Eight of nine councilmembers voiced their support. Mark Wallach cast half a vote in favor.
“It was clear [city staff] were unclear whether to proceed in the electrification direction, which was why I wanted to give that direction from council,” Brockett told Boulder Reporting Lab. “If you have a straw poll, and a majority supports it, that gives a clear will of council.”
According to city staff, it didn’t push the all-electric option to the forefront out of concern for litigation. Berkeley, California, was the first city to adopt an ordinance, passed in 2019, to prevent gas hookups from being installed in new buildings. The California Restaurant Association challenged the ordinance in court, however, and won, after the court ruled that federal law dictates only the U.S. Department of Energy can set conservation standards for building appliances.
The restaurant association cited the need for gas to foster “innovation” by those in the restaurant industry. Most gas bans, however, offer exceptions, with one of the most common being for commercial kitchens.
Carolyn Elam, Boulder’s energy systems senior manager, said the city is “aware that there is a strong lobby fighting any perceived restrictions on natural gas appliances.”
She added that despite this, the City of Boulder feels its “position is strong” and appreciated the clear direction indicated by council “that an all-electric code is the preferred path forward.”
As Boulder has a reputation of leading environmental pushes, its lag in the gas ban conversation might seem surprising. Brockett said it’s just a matter of scheduling.
“We update our codes every three years, and each time we push the envelope,” he said. “I think once we make this update, we will be back in the lead in terms of the strength of our energy codes.”
Brockett said he believes, for the most part, the Boulder community wants council to push for electrification.
“People understand that the buildings we’re building now are going to be with us for decades,” he said. “And if we don’t get their energy efficiency and energy use right now, that’s a lost opportunity for the next generation.”
Boulder County Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann, who tried to get Louisville to adopt a gas ban while she was the city’s mayor, said when considering climate change, communities don’t have a choice.
“We’ve got to stop using methane in buildings,” Stolzmann said.
New scientific research adds to mounting evidence that gas is as bad as coal for the climate. Across the gas lifecycle — from drilling to pipeline distribution — methane, a super global-warming gas, is leaking from its conveyances into the atmosphere.
The county has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, from 2005 levels. The city’s goal is more aggressive.
Referencing a memo the commission received from county climate staff, Stolzmann said “to reach the county’s 2030 goal, we can’t approve any more buildings that have methane. And we would need to do significant amounts of retrofitting by 2030. So this is going to take something different than business as usual.
“This is a time for innovation and action,” she said.
Not a ‘big surprise to Xcel’
A Boulder gas ban could lead to some awkwardness between Boulder and Xcel, Colorado’s largest utility. After a yearslong battle to create its own energy utility, the City of Boulder reached a franchise agreement with Xcel Energy. Yet Xcel, the utility supplying Boulder’s natural gas, does not support such bans.
Xcel did not respond to a request for comment.
Xcel is a member of Coloradans for Energy Access, a gas industry advocacy group that launched last year to oppose electrification efforts in Colorado. The coalition’s website props up methane for its “ever-increasing innovation and efficiency.” The site’s main image is a gas stove.
Despite all this, Elam said she didn’t think Boulder’s push would come out of the blue to Xcel, based on the city’s energy goals that require zero fossil fuel emissions and electrification.
“I don’t think there’s anything [Boulder’s doing] that’s a big surprise to Xcel,” Elam said.
Brockett said he’s concerned time is running out.
“I have two kids, and I worry that we’re not providing them with a livable planet for their future,” he said. “We’ve waited so long to address the crisis of climate change. So we need to be doing what we can now to make sure that even in their old age, and the old age of their kids and grandkids that there’s a safe and comfortable planet to live on.”
Brockett recently announced his desire to keep his job as mayor in the first year Boulderites will directly elect the position. When asked if the topic of Boulder’s approach to climate change would be a part of the election, Brockett said, “I’m certainly going to be talking about it.”
City staff will bring code options for council to vote on later this year.