Colorado's new building code pits energy transition against affordable housing

Matt Whittaker
An electric car charging station with an electric vehicle in the background.Photo byIvan Radic via Flickr

By Matt Whittaker / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.)  The Colorado Energy Code Board on Thursday released new building codes requiring new and substantially renovated buildings to include pre-wiring for solar panels, high-efficiency electric appliances and electric vehicle charging infrastructure, a move that worries building advocates concerned about housing affordability.

Proponents of the code point to cost savings from the electric equipment over time and greenhouse gas and air pollution reductions. Buildings are one of the five biggest greenhouse gas sources in Colorado.

“With recent market trends and new state and federal incentives, these clean energy technologies have never been more affordable,” Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor said in a statement. “Preparing new homes and buildings to support them will allow Colorado residents and businesses to take advantage of these opportunities, which will save them money on energy costs, reduce emissions, and improve air quality across the state.”

Housing industry balks at cost

The new code mandates that new or renovated multi-family dwellings with more than 10 parking spaces have electric vehicle charging infrastructure of some type at 60% of the spaces. That’s well over the minimum of 20% mandated by state law.

It’s a scenario feared by the Greenwood Village-based Colorado Apartment Association, which says the new requirement is overkill that will needlessly jack up the price of apartments in the state, which is already experiencing a housing affordability crisis.

Andrew Hamrick, general counsel with the association, said that electric charging stations in parking lots are a good idea – up to a point.

“Each and every charging station built beyond actual demand translates into waste and higher housing costs,” he said in an e-mail. “The board didn't do a very good job of analyzing the economic and environmental waste mandated by this code.”

The code requirements released Thursday say 30% of parking spaces must be “EV capable light,” 10% must be “EV capable,” 15% must be “EV ready,” and 5% must have electric vehicle supply equipment installed. Each of those tiers requires increasing levels of electrical equipment, although the equipment can serve multiple parking spaces if certain criteria are met.

The apartment association estimates that the equipment costs between $1,900 and $12,000 per space, depending on the tier. The association was hoping for a code where just 5% of spaces would have electric vehicle supply equipment installed and 15% would be EV-capable spaces.

“The percentages required by the draft code are extreme, expensive and unrelated to current or projected consumer demand,” Hamrick told the board in written remarks while it was still hammering out the new code.

The Colorado Association of Home Builders echoed the apartment lobby’s concerns in written comments to the board, saying that “for every $1,000 increase in the price of a median-priced new home it will price 1,305 Colorado households out of the market.”

Board weighs upfront versus retrofit costs

The code says large commercial and multi-family building projects can apply for a partial waiver of the requirements if there is a cost differential of one percent or more of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing construction costs.

The board said it considered cost-effectiveness and affordability. It determined cost effectiveness primarily by balancing upfront costs with the more-expensive process of retrofitting future buildings

Critics say that isn’t enough.

“One board member has repeatedly asserted that comparing new construction costs and retrofit costs is the definition of considering housing affordability,” homebuilders association CEO Ted Leighty said in the written comments. “We strongly object. While the costs to retrofit can certainly be more expensive than new construction, the changes being considered by the board will still contribute to increased construction costs, thereby making homes more expensive.”

Supporters point to long-term savings from electrification

Supporters of the new code say home buyers should consider the long-term savings and not just the upfront costs.

“Critiques of the added cost of EV-ready codes do not take into account the consumer savings that come from electric transportation,” Travis Madsen, transportation program director with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said in an e-mail. “Electric vehicles offer major potential savings for drivers, because they cost much less to fuel and maintain.”

He pointed to a Consumer Reports estimate that a typical EV costs $6,000 to $10,000 less over the life of the vehicle compared to a gasoline version and another report that forecasts lifetime fuel and maintenance savings for 2021 EVs purchased in Colorado of $12,500 to $16,600.

But to fully take advantage of those savings, drivers need to be able to charge their cars at home or at work where they can access residential or commercial electricity rates instead of more-expensive public chargers, Madsen said.

“Research shows the vast majority of charging will happen at people's homes overnight so the buildings we construct today should support EV charging,” Alana Miller, director of Colorado climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an e-mail. “Expanding access to clean and more affordable transportation … is critical, especially for people who live in multi-family housing.”

In addition to the electric vehicle and solar readiness requirements, local governments are required to adopt energy codes that meet or exceed the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code.

The Polis administration pointed to a U.S. Department of Energy study that said upgrading to the 2021 international code from a 2015 version will save the average new Colorado homeowner more than $1,200 in life-cycle costs. 

The Colorado Energy Office and Department of Local affairs have scheduled two upcoming webinars to help local communities learn about the new electric and solar code. One is on Friday at 10 a.m. and the other is June 8 at 9:30 a.m.

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Matt Whittaker writes about natural resources industries, including oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, agriculture and cannabis. He's been based in the Denver metro area since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @mattswhittaker.

Lakewood, CO

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