Denver City skyline and City Park at sunset in warm orange glow

Denver’s Bold New Plan for Carbon-Free Buildings

Denver leaders are setting a high bar for other cities in Colorado and nationwide with the release of an ambitious new climate plan focused on buildings. The plan lays out a roadmap to achieve all-electric buildings, setting clear targets to phase out fossil fuels in both homes and commercial buildings. These targets are critical for swiftly reducing carbon emissions from the buildings sector and setting a clear course to meet Colorado’s climate goals.


A Bold Timeline for New Buildings

The plan, developed in partnership with the New Buildings Institute, outlines a pathway towards net-zero new buildings and homes, including:

  • Net-zero energy, all-electric new homes in the 2024 Building Code
  • Net-zero energy, all-electric new commercial buildings in the 2027 Building Code
  • New buildings perform as designed (performance validation) in the 2030 Building Code

The City developed this timeline to put Denver on track to meet its goal of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, with input from local advisory groups. City planners project that the residential sector will make up the largest portion of new construction in Denver, which makes a swift timeline for net-zero, all-electric homes a priority. If the plan is approved by the Denver City Council, these targets will be among the most ambitious in the country.

The plan details the characteristics of this new generation of clean, efficient homes and commercial buildings. They will be:

  • Highly Energy Efficient: This is key because energy efficiency can improve occupant health and comfort while reducing heating and cooling costs.
  • All-Electric: Installing modern, efficient electric heat pumps can eliminate emissions associated with burning gas or other fossil fuels on site.
  • Powered by Renewable Energy and Electricity (on-site or off-site): Adding renewable energy helps transition to a carbon-free electric grid and ensures the electric heating will be emissions-free.
  • Providers of Demand Flexibility for the Grid: Ensuring that buildings have energy storage and can respond to grid signals can improve the reliability and resiliency of a low-carbon electric system.

Denver is also developing a plan for electrifying existing buildings, which will address how to strategically achieve carbon-free buildings within Denver; this plan is expected to be completed by the end of 2021.


Economic, Health, and Climate Benefits

Given that 40 percent of Denver’s 2050 building stock has yet to be built, setting net-zero energy requirements is critical not only to meet climate targets, but also to create economic and health benefits.

As RMI’s previous analysis shows, net-zero-energy homes are becoming increasingly cost-effective since they are highly efficient and produce their own renewable energy. What’s more, recent RMI research shows that building a new, all-electric, single-family home in Denver can save families almost $2,900 over 15 years versus a dual-fuel home with a gas hookup.

All-electric homes also offer improved indoor air quality by reducing harmful pollutants such as NO2 that are released by gas appliances like stoves. Research has shown that children living in homes with gas stoves have a 42 percent increased risk of experiencing asthma symptoms.


Momentum Builds Nationwide (Including in Cold Climates)

The introduction of Denver’s net zero plan highlights that all-electric building codes are a pragmatic solution to climate mitigation even in colder climates where heat pump technologies have not traditionally been used. This follows a growing trend of cities working to pass policies that reduce emissions in buildings (see map here).

Given that city-level action has the capacity to lower emissions 70 percent globally, Denver is just one of many proving itself as a leader on building decarbonization. In doing so, it joins progressive actions being taken by Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington DC using new building performance standards to accelerate emission reductions and meet their climate goals.

States like Maine, Massachusetts, and New York have also included efficient heat pumps as a key strategy in achieving their climate goals and are continuing to facilitate more widespread adoption. Denver now serves as a leading case study highlighting the capacity for city-level action to bend the curve of emissions and make our communities more resilient, healthier, and equitable over time.