Officials in Denver’s sustainability office are still calculating by how much the city’s largest buildings must curb energy use in 2024 and 2027 on their way to meeting the end goal of using nearly a third less energy by 2030.
Smaller buildings also face required lighting or solar upgrades under the initiative, dubbed Energize Denver. And eventually all commercial and multi-family buildings will be required to use electric heating and cooling systems.
Homes are not required to cut energy use or install any new equipment under the new law, which the City Council unanimously approved last month.
Katrina Managan, with the Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, told The Denver Post that city officials will finalize those interim targets for 2024 and 2027 and inform building owners of the requirements by March 2022. On Wednesday she outlined those and other details from the initiative during a briefing for building owners and managers.
All told, Denver’s approximately 17,000 commercial and multi-family buildings pump out nearly 50% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, Managan said. And Energize Denver should reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 11.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between this year and 2040.
Plus, despite any up-front costs, Managan said the improvements make financial sense as well.
“This should lower the cost of doing business in Denver, this should lower the cost of operating these buildings in Denver,” Managan said.
Managan and other city officials behind the process have enjoyed strong support from a wide swathe of property owners, businesses, trade associations and environmental activists. Although some business and property owners, like Steve Weil, president of the Rockmount Ranch Wear Manufacturing Company, take issue not only with the impending requirements but also their timing.
“This adds to the stress of trying to operate an efficient business during a pandemic,” Weil said. “Who needs this unnecessary brain damage?”
Still, Managan said the requirements are broad enough for building owners and managers to meet them in ways that best suit their needs and budgets. Even if some can’t make the grade, city officials can flex deadlines and other mandates to make it easier on them.
“We know where the finish line is and we know where we are today,” said City Councilman Jolon Clark, who supported and helped craft the measure. “We built in as much flexibility as possible while still honoring the fact that we all have to get over the finish line.”
Denver’s largest buildings
Buildings larger than 25,000 square feet, of which there are about 3,000, must cut the amount of energy they use per square foot by an average of 30% by 2030, compared to a 2019 baseline, Managan said.
Those larger buildings will be split into different categories like hotels, offices and multi-family buildings. Each type will have a different per-square-foot target and ultimately the cuts should average out to the 30% goal, Managan said. Buildings housing multiple business types will be divided among those categories.
Weil said he’s already invested a lot of money in making his building more efficient and took issue with city officials forcing owners to go even further.
“One size does not fit all,” Weil said. “Why is my 30,000-square foot building in the same category as a 100,000-square-foot building or bigger?”
But Managan said those already operating above efficiency standards – about 15% of the largest buildings – won’t have to make any more improvements.
In addition, there isn’t a specific way building owners must use less energy.
“They get to pick,” Managan said. “Do they want to do a lighting upgrade? Do they want to turn off heating when it’s not needed? Turn off the cooling when it’s not needed?”
Lighting or solar upgrades
Denver’s smaller commercial and multi-family buildings – between 5,000 and 25,000 square feet – have less flexibility in the coming years, however. Energize Denver requires them to either install LED lights, an efficient lighting equivalent or that they install or purchase enough solar power to offset a fifth of the building’s annual energy usage.
Buildings between 15,001 and 24,999 square feet must finish the upgrades by Dec. 31, 2025. The next category, buildings between 10,001 and 15,000 square feet, must finish by the end of 2026 and the smallest group of buildings must finish by the end of 2027.
Managan said about 6,000 buildings will have to make these upgrades.
Heating and cooling
The last portion of Energize Denver will require all commercial and multi-family buildings to gradually replace their heating and cooling systems with electric ones, Clark said.
City officials will update Denver’s building code to wean buildings off older gas heating and cooling systems, Managan said.
The ordinance gives the City Council deadlines at the start of 2023, 2025 and 2027 to update the Denver Building and Fire Code with different components of those requirements.
The idea is to encourage building owners and managers to replace their gas heating and cooling systems at the end of their useful life and when that is the most financially viable option, Clark said.
“This isn’t saying let’s go fill the landfill with perfectly good, operating systems,” Clark said.
Still, Weil said he just installed a new heating system in his building, replacing one that lasted 80 years or more. He said engineers have told him they’re not sure his building could be adapted to an electric system at all.
Plus, Weil expressed concern that Denver’s grid won’t be able to handle a larger demand for electricity with all these upgrades.
But Managan said the grid was built to handle massive demand during the summer months and so should be able to take on the increase, perhaps with a few localized infrastructure improvements needed.
Clark acknowledged that concerns do exist but said cutting emissions will only become more difficult with each passing day. He and others on the Energize Denver Task Force worked to include as much flexibility as possible into the law, especially to keep upgrade costs low.
He also noted the diverse representation on the task force, which includes officials Xcel Energy, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the Sierra Club, the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association and more.
In addition, Clark said much more is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but this is a start.
“This is one piece,” he said. “It’s a big piece, but it’s still just one piece.”
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