How We’re Pushing Colorado to Make Buildings Climate-Friendly

For a decade, Earthjustice has advocated for a cleaner and more equitable energy system at the Colorado PUC—and we’re seeing progress.

Colorado proves it’s not just coastal states that lead on climate policy. Environmental and community advocates have won major commitments to clean up the state’s power sector. Now Colorado is at the forefront of a fight to make buildings more climate-friendly—and the state’s public utilities commission is at the center of this work.

Public utilities commissions (PUCs) make some of the most consequential climate and energy decisions in the United States. Many climate policies are made and implemented at the state level, and PUCs are the state agencies that decide how promptly investor-owned utilities shift away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy. By combining Earthjustice’s legal expertise with our clients’ voices and policy expertise, we have successfully advanced climate solutions and clean energy at PUCs across the nation.

In Colorado, we’ve represented environmental and community advocates before the PUC since 2014. We began by representing Vote Solar and Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) in efforts to accelerate the growth of rooftop solar, community solar, and energy efficiency technologies across the state. While we continue to work on cleaning up Colorado’s power sector, our work at the PUC has evolved to also include electrifying buildings and transportation. Vote Solar and SWEEP remain key partners, and we now work with a wide array of organizations fighting for a more equitable and cleaner energy future in Colorado, including Black Parents United Foundation, Cultivando, GreenLatinos, GRID Alternatives, Mi Familia Vota, Mothers Out Front, NAACP Denver, and Womxn from the Mountain.

Building decarbonization provides an example of our evolving advocacy at the Colorado PUC. The gas that we burn in our homes and businesses for heating and other purposes is responsible for over one-third of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions. And as the power sector becomes cleaner, there is a key opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying furnaces, water heaters, and other appliances that burn gas.

A clean power sector provides the foundation for building decarbonization and electrification, and Colorado is now rapidly transitioning to a cleaner grid that is primarily powered by wind and solar. Building decarbonization is a key component of Colorado’s climate strategy, and the state is at the forefront of this work nationally. The Colorado General Assembly enacted landmark, first-in-the-nation legislation in 2021 that requires Colorado’s gas utilities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and electric utilities to develop beneficial electrification plans.

Replacing gas appliances with electric appliances, such as heat pumps, is the most cost-effective, proven, and readily available measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. Colorado’s gas utilities and the gas industry, however, have not enthusiastically embraced electrification. The gas utilities would prefer to also reduce their emissions through costlier and more speculative measures, such as hydrogen, “renewable” gas, and “certified” gas. Gas utilities profit from selling gas to customers and building and maintaining the gas system, and they would prefer to maintain the status quo.

In several recent cases, the Colorado PUC has been confronted with these two competing visions for building decarbonization. Our initial building decarbonization case began in 2021, when Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, proposed to expand a portion of its gas system in west Denver to meet an increased demand for gas due to population growth. We opposed this proposal and argued that instead of spending money expanding the gas system, Xcel should reduce demand for gas through non-pipeline alternatives, such as energy efficiency and electrification. The Colorado PUC approved Xcel’s request, but the agency made it clear that in the future it would not continue to approve Xcel’s business-as-usual approach for expanding the capacity of the gas system.

In 2022, we intervened in an Xcel gas rate case and successfully opposed a large rate hike that would fund continued investments in the gas system. In a separate 2022 Xcel case, we secured $67.5 million for beneficial electrification programs that provide incentives for customers to electrify their homes and businesses. This was a 21% increase over what Xcel proposed for electrification investments and was an almost twenty-fold increase over Xcel’s previous spending on electrification.

In 2023, we challenged Atmos Energy’s claim that utilities that provide only gas to customers—and not electricity—should be exempt from implementing electrification programs because electrification is contrary to their business model. Although the Colorado PUC did not grant our specific request, it clarified that it is “entirely appropriate” for gas-only utilities to implement beneficial electrification, as electrification is often the cheapest and most widely available measure to reduce gas utilities’ emissions and avoid costly gas infrastructure investments.

Finally, perhaps the biggest building decarbonization case to date in Colorado involves Xcel’s Clean Heat Plan. Colorado’s Clean Heat law requires Xcel to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 22% by 2030, and Xcel’s Clean Heat plan is the first plan of this type in the nation. Rather than directly reducing its emissions, Xcel initially proposed to achieve most of the emission reductions by purchasing carbon offsets and reducing methane leakage from upstream oil and gas production. In an important early victory in the case, we successfully argued that Xcel cannot lawfully rely on these indirect emission reductions to achieve the Clean Heat emission reduction targets. Now, the Colorado PUC must decide whether Xcel will exclusively use electrification and energy efficiency to achieve the Clean Heat targets, or whether the utility will also be allowed to pursue more costly and uncertain measures, such as hydrogen and renewable natural gas. The Colorado PUC is currently nearing its final decision in this case.

Earthjustice will continue to advocate alongside our clients for a clean and equitable energy system that benefits all Coloradans. As we push the state to lead on climate action, the PUC will remain a key venue for progress.

Robert Rigonan is an associate attorney with the Rocky Mountain office in Denver.

Michael Hiatt is deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice's Rocky Mountain Office.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.

Solar in Colorado
Solar panels in Colorado. (Arina P Habich / Shutterstock)