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Kipp, Valdez, Willford Opinion: Energy upgrades to apartment buildings will help Colorado hit its climate target

Aug 16, 2023

This story was published in the Colorado Sun on Aug 16, 2023.

This week, Colorado air quality regulators can take a major step forward in slashing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from our state’s largest buildings while fighting high energy costs. Today the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is scheduled to hold hearings and could cast a key vote on a policy called Building Performance Standards. Approving the proposed policy will help solve a major climate problem in Colorado — large buildings like apartments and offices account for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions statewide.

In 2021, our colleagues in the Colorado General Assembly passed a law setting greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets for large buildings statewide. The Building Performance Standards will do exactly that — achieving a 7% cut by 2026 and 20% by 2030.

However, benefits of the policy would extend way beyond climate. It would improve health, comfort, safety, energy efficiency, and livability for tenants of apartment buildings statewide. It’s a chance to keep Coloradans healthy and safe, while saving them money on energy bills and advancing climate action. Commissioners must vote to approve the Building Performance Standards. This is an opportunity Colorado can’t afford to miss.

Apartment tenants across Colorado are painfully aware of how difficult it is to keep their homes comfortable on the coldest winter nights and hottest summer afternoons. Inefficient units mean needing to use more energy, resulting in higher bills. As soaring fossil fuel prices sent energy costs skyrocketing in the past 18 months, many Coloradans paid three times as much for heating as they did the year before. This compounds our affordable housing crisis; renters in many Colorado cities have experienced double-digit rent hikes in recent years. 

We must act urgently. Climate change is causing extreme heat to occur more frequently in Colorado. In 2022, the number of deaths and hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses statewide grew by 66% and 58%, respectively, compared with the annual average for the decade prior. Residents over 65 years old were most likely to be stricken, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Energy efficiency and electrification upgrades in apartment units help protect residents’ health and safety from extreme heat, but they can be life-saving if a power outage were to occur during a heat wave or a cold snap. New research has found that making these upgrades to apartment buildings in cities with seasonal patterns similar to Denver can allow residents to shelter in place safely for longer periods of time during such an emergency, and reduce deaths in both extreme heat and cold.

The Building Performance Standards is a major step in the right direction. It will upgrade buildings, from inefficient fossil-fuel appliances to highly efficient electric solutions, like heat pumps, which both heat and cool, and heat pump water heaters. Studies have found that these kinds of upgrades, in apartment units, result in 22% lower energy use, on average, and about $272 in annual savings on electric bills.

If approved, the policy will gradually take effect over coming years, as building owners submit data and launch their improvements. It will implement upgrades to about 1,000 apartment buildings statewide. The state has tried for years to lower the costs of such upgrades through incentive programs, but upgrades have moved at a glacial pace. State requirements are necessary for Colorado to pick up the pace.

This Building Performance Standards policy will also help address energy inequity and advance environmental justice. Low-income residents and communities of color experience higher air pollution burdens, often living near major highways, industrial facilities, or power plants. Studies have found that superior ventilation and better insulation will reduce air pollutant infiltration from outside or from neighboring units and common spaces by 3 to 11 times. This is also a huge benefit when wildfire smoke blankets Colorado.

For low-income households, dilapidated housing conditions like poor insulation or broken or old heating and air conditioning are among the main reasons for being unable to pay a bill, receiving a disconnection notice, or having service shut off. In Colorado, 71% of low-income households use fossil fuels for heating, so have been more exposed to recent price volatility. Statewide, utility disconnections have skyrocketed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

These households and communities of color are also more likely to lack air conditioning at home. A recent survey of diverse Denver neighborhoods determined that almost one quarter of residents whose annual incomes were below $35,000 lack access to cooling.

There’s never been a better time for Colorado to adopt a building performance standard. The recent federal climate law provides up to $200,000 per apartment building for energy efficiency upgrades, and point-of-sale rebates on electric appliances like heat pumps. Incentives from utilities, governments, and more make the upgrades even cheaper.

Building Performance Standards will protect every Coloradan, cutting climate pollution and cleaning up the air we breathe. Inefficient buildings burn much more fuel, meaning more nitrogen dioxide pollution and a worsening air quality crisis in Front Range communities. The state estimates that for every $1 spent on upgrades, we get $3 back in benefits, like lower energy bills or lowered health care costs, from cleaner air. We shouldn’t wait any longer. The Air Quality Control Commission should vote yes this week.

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