Pitkin County Moving To Place A Cap On Exterior Energy Use

Pitkin County Moving To Place A Cap On Exterior Energy Use

Pitkin County is poised to limit the exterior energy use of new homes to help meet its climate-action goals.

The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 6 approved on first reading a package of code amendments that place a cap on exterior energy use at 200 million British thermal units (Btu) per year and per parcel and implement new “electric-ready” requirements.

The exterior energy use amendments will apply only to residential properties. At a second reading and public hearing on Jan. 10, county staff presented additional information to commissioners about the program and how it will take effect. Commissioners requested additional changes to the applicability provisions of the new code and will consider a revised ordinance Feb. 14. Once approved, the new code will go into effect 30 days later. 

“The goal is to reduce over-consumption of everything that we see here,” Commissioner Francie Jacober said on Jan. 10.

Commissioner Greg Poschman added that the board had received several letters from proponents of the cap who have some stature in energy conservation and in climate work. 

“[They] basically said we have to do this now … if we're going to follow through with our climate action goals, if we're going to move them forward,” he said.

Currently, building-permit applicants who want to install a snowmelt system, an outdoor pool or spa, or heat tape used on pipes and gutters must either offset their exterior energy use by installing on-site renewable energy or pay a fee through the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program. 

In 2010, the county placed a cap on snowmelt at 6,000 square feet, because it was thought that that amount would equate to 240 million Btu per year. There were no caps placed on pools and spas. “At the time, pools and spas were thought to not be an issue as 90% of the exterior energy consumption was snowmelt,” according to a Dec. 6 memo from county staff.

“Over the years, we’ve learned that 6,000 square feet of snowmelt is much more actual usage than 240 million Btu per year,” Pitkin County chief building official Jeff Erickson told the BOCC on Jan. 10, adding that 6,000 square feet of snowmelt represents 523 million Btu per year. “More than double what was originally thought.”

On average, applicants developing snowmelt systems in Pitkin County request 2,560 square feet of snowmelt per parcel, according to the Dec. 6 staff memo. The average exterior energy use in the county for properties with outdoor energy-consuming features is 125 million Btu per year per parcel, Erickson said, adding that the proposed 200 million Btu energy budget is higher than the average exterior use.

The proposed energy exterior energy-use budget of 200 million Btu equates to about 2,292 square feet of snowmelt. This will apply to all exterior energy use — not only snowmelt, heat tape, and outdoor spas and pools, but also outdoor electric heat mats, outdoor electric heaters, and outdoor gas fireplaces and firepits. The current 6,000-square-foot cap on snowmelt and exemptions on smaller spas (64 square feet or less) and on the first 1,000 watts of heat tape will be removed.

 

This budget will help the county meet its climate-action goals set up in 2019, which include reducing annual emissions by 90% from 2019 levels by 2050 and requiring all new residential development to be net zero by 2030.

Erickson said the county adopted the HERS Energy Rating Index in 2020, which means that all homes must meet an ERI of 60 before the installation of renewable energy and then an ERI of 30 after the installation of renewables. “The lower the number on the scale, the more energy efficient the home,” he wrote in an email to Aspen Journalism.

The goal is to reach an ERI of zero for all new homes by 2030. “This is hypothetically ‘net zero,’ but the HERS index does not take into consideration the exterior energy consumption, which we are addressing with this code adoption,” Erickson wrote.

Staff provided a few scenarios to better explain what their proposed budget means. If the budget is maxed out (200 million Btu), a 5,750-square-foot home’s exterior energy use will represent about the same as its interior energy use. However, without the budget, its exterior energy use could reach three times as much as its interior energy use when installing the maximum-allowed snowmelt size.

“We're still looking at astronomical Btu consumption,” Jacober said.

If a specific external energy use is proved to be necessary to mitigate a life safety concern, the REMP payment may be waived for that specific use, but it would still be counted toward the 200 million Btu exterior energy budget.

Erickson pointed out that no driveway requires snowmelt from a life safety standpoint. Jan Legersky, fire marshal at the Aspen Fire Department, agreed. “Our only requirement in the fire code is that [driveways] be maintained, but there is nothing that’s specified they need to be snowmelted,“ Legersky said at the Jan. 10 meeting.

As the county wants to move toward net-zero emissions, Erickson said offsetting interior and exterior energy use becomes increasingly difficult and unlikely. “We don't have enough roof space [for solar panels] going forward,” Erickson said. 

An Aspen Journalism analysis published in May found that two-thirds of the new single-family homes built in Pitkin County between 2018 and 2022 included at least one “exterior energy load” requiring mitigation under REMP and that the majority of those outdoor energy uses involved snowmelt. Snowmelt consumes double the energy per square foot of the typical American home, the story reported. 

“When I hear Jeff [Erickson] say that 200 million Btu is 40 kilowatts, that means that our solar farm is serving 125 homes, pools, snowmelt, heat tapes, spas,” Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said, referring to the Woody Creek solar farm meant to generate 5 megawatts for about 900 homes. “I’m not sure that’s what the community is expecting from us in terms of climate actions.”

The code amendments are also aimed to help the transition from fossil fuels to electricity derived from renewable sources. In addition to the exterior energy use, Pitkin County is proposing to adopt the state of Colorado’s electric-ready provisions, which require that residential and commercial projects have electric systems capable of carrying future electrical loads, among other provisions. This would apply to new builds and to any remodel or addition of 1,000 square feet or more. 

Also, in order to make new construction ready for an anticipated surge in electric vehicle use, single-family and duplex residential installations and dwelling units with an attached or detached garage or other onsite designated parking would be required to provide one EV-ready space per dwelling unit. 

Applicability and hardship 

What has emerged as a concern is whether code changes should apply to proposed new homes currently working their way through the county’s land-use approval process. As some applications have been queued in the lengthy land-use review process, which is followed by a building-permit application, several applicants have expressed concern regarding whether or not they will need to file new site plans to accommodate the code changes, which would make projects more costly. As of Jan 10, the ordinance said the updated code would apply to any building-permit application submitted after the code goes into effect, meaning the code changes would affect applications currently in the land-use-approval queue.

“This is such a dramatic change in the energy code, which we all support, but to the people who are caught in the middle of the process, it’s so unfair,” Ben Genshaft, an Aspen attorney, said to the BOCC on Jan. 10. “It takes a really long time to get through that process,” he said, adding that the land-use process for some cases can take as long as 12 to 18 months, making any changes to the site plans more difficult.

As of Jan. 3, 60 applications were in the land-use-review process. Those include five applications in “completeness review,” which means that a planner is reviewing their application to determine if it meets the requirements. Fifteen of those applications have been deemed complete and are on a waitlist to be assigned to a planner for application review, and 40 are in application review. Not all of these applications include exterior energy use. 

A total of 95 site-plan applications have been approved between 2021 and 2023 with three years’ vested rights that protect them from land-use code changes. However, the county classifies building code changes as a “rule of general applicability,” meaning that a vested project that has not yet filed for a building permit is not protected from the new energy code change. 

Staff recommended the BOCC not to exempt any approved and vested site plan that has not entered the building permit process by the date the code goes into effect from the revised external energy budget. 

“In most cases, if the current site plan exceeds the 200 million Btu, modifying the site plan would reduce the overall energy usage and likely be considered a minor modification,” according to the staff memo.

After an applicant gets their land-use plan approved with vested rights, they then need to initiate the building-permit application process during these three years. Once started, the building permit can take up to a year to be issued. The applicant then has a year to start building and get the first inspection. 

“If these [applications] were all [exempted] from the application of the new energy code provisions, we're going to be building [houses] for the next five to 10 years, because some of these projects take up to three years to build, where we're still perpetuating the energy use that we are today,” Pitkin County Community Development Director Suzanne Wolff said on Jan. 10. 

In response to the public’s concerns, the commissioners discussed an appeal process that would give applicants who have submitted a complete land-use application the opportunity to ask for a possible exemption. 

On Feb. 14, BOCC will review a new version of the ordinance that will include an appeal process. This appeal will allow project proponents whose applications have been deemed complete at the time the ordinance goes into effect to ask for an exemption from having to comply with the new energy code for “undue hardship” or “innovative process.”

 

By: | Aspen Daily News I February 2, 2024


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