Municipalities in the Roaring Fork Valley want to ban residents from using natural gas as an energy source.
This effort to increase community electric loads in an attempt to fight climate change — known as “electrification” — has already begun here in our backyard with a ban on natural gas in new residential construction passed last fall by the Basalt Town Council. Elected officials in other areas of the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys are contemplating similar bans.
These are the first steps in a process.
Electrification will culminate, eventually, with elected officials in these cities and towns directing residents to remove natural gas furnaces, stoves, fireplaces and water heaters from their homes and businesses, and replace them all with electrical appliances.
How exactly this mandatory retrofitting will occur remains to be seen, but that is the undisputed end goal of electrification.
These natural gas bans — which are often not well-publicized by the elected officials who enact them — will permanently remove the ability of Roaring Fork and Eagle valley residents to choose the source of energy that best fits their lifestyle and economic circumstances. Further, these decisions will add thousands of dollars in yearly electricity costs, provide scant backup plans when a lengthy power outage occurs in a critical month like January, and will likely lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions in the short term because of Colorado’s current coal-heavy power generation mix.
None of those facts, however, are meant to minimize the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our impact on the environment.
Black Hills Energy — which provides natural gas service to residents of the Roaring Fork Valley and parts of the Eagle Valley — is among the nation’s energy companies taking clear and decisive steps to combat these impacts. Black Hills Energy’s goal, in fact, is for our natural gas distribution system to achieve net-zero emissions by 2035.
Residents and business owners who use natural gas can be proactive by choosing high-efficiency gas appliances, implementing energy efficiency measures and taking advantage of rebates offered by Black Hills Energy and other companies.
But the point is it’s nearly impossible to just turn off the tap. The technological challenges involved in operating a hospital, a college campus or a 10,000-square-foot home solely on electricity are daunting and expensive.
Will that happen more easily in the future? Or will the choice of natural gas as an energy option be taken away before technology catches up to municipal climate goals? And what happens when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, and the temperature drops, and we are left with no way to heat our homes?
These questions are key to the debate and remain unanswered. Still, even when we have those answers, any long-term solutions must include natural gas as part of the energy mix.
The other main concern with electrification is the cost.
Residents and business owners will not only have to pay one-time appliance conversion costs, but they will also have to pay more every month in the form of higher electric bills. That’s because a therm of natural gas produces a lot more energy than a kilowatt hour of electricity.
For example, the monthly residential natural gas bill in Aspen currently averages about $133, billed at a rate of about $1 per therm. Using a standard formula to convert natural gas therms to electrical kilowatt hours, that average gas bill jumps to $429 per month in electricity costs using the current Holy Cross Energy price of about 11 cents per kwh.
And that’s on top of whatever you already currently pay for electricity each month.
Also, don’t forget the cost of converting a home or business over to all-electric appliances. Or the fact that consumers will end up having to foot the bill for the new power generation infrastructure that must go hand-in-hand with electrification.
But even if every home in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys could afford to install a heat pump tomorrow, other climate change impacts would need to be considered.
As of August 2022, 42% of Colorado’s electricity came from coal, 31% from natural gas and 27% was generated from renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In the Roaring Fork and parts of the Eagle and Colorado River valleys around here, 48% of the electricity comes from renewables, 31% from coal, 15% from “market” sources and 5.5% from natural gas, according to Holy Cross Energy’s website.
A January 2022 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study suggested that Colorado and other states with coal-heavy electrical grids “require a longer view of decarbonization” because an immediate increase in electrical generation will produce more coal-fired electricity and more emission impacts than a measured, gradual transition.
The analysis also factored cost into the equation.
“The potential carbon savings from electrification of space heating will only be realized if replacement appliances are affordable in terms of both installation and operational costs,” the Lawrence Berkeley study concluded. “The potential of electrification of space heating to negatively impact household energy budgets is of particular concern for low-income households.”
The urgency behind fighting climate change leading local governments to feel they need to go full-steam ahead and take natural gas away from consumers as an energy option is short-sighted and could have dangerous ramifications in the future.
Europe’s race to decarbonize and rely on renewable sources of energy offers a valuable lesson on moving the process along too swiftly. But we need not look further than California or Texas for much closer evidence of the need to electrify responsibly, safely and equitably for all.
Jason Auslander is Black Hills Energy’s community affairs manager.