All-electric homes in Utah: It’s getting easier to douse the fire and embrace the wire

Electric heating has gained efficiency, but Utah homebuilders say customers still want natural gas.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Valarie Williams with her dog, Ellie Mae Noodle, at the all-electric apartment building Project Open in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Williams says she wanted to live in an emission-free building to reflect her beliefs.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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For Valarie Williams, living in an all-electric building is about what isn’t noticeable.

“The best part is what you don’t see,” says Williams, who has been living in the all-electric Project Open building near West High School. Williams says she has everything any natural gas-heated housing offers in the way of comfort and convenience, but it also comes with the knowledge that it’s not adding pollutants to the Wasatch Front’s air.

“I wanted to live in a place that reflected my beliefs,” she says.

Project Open is one of several all-electric apartment buildings developed by the Giv Group, which been leading out on all-electric housing along the Wasatch Front since 2015.

The conditions for all-electric construction have never been more favorable. New technologies have made electric heating more efficient. Where once natural gas had a definite advantage, that gap is closing. That’s particularly true with improvements to heat pumps, which have made electric heating a more viable option even in cold climates.

Clean energy advocates have been pushing for changes to building codes to encourage electrification, but homebuilders have pushed back. With Utah desperately trying to put up more housing, builders are still installing gas furnaces in nearly all new units, a move they say is driven by customer demand.

“Our residential energy code is woefully out of date,” says Kevin Emerson, director of building efficiency and decarbonization for Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit advocacy group. His organization has been encouraging the state to embrace the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, which requires a tighter building “envelopes” and more efficient heating. He cited a study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that shows adopting the 2021 code would produce a 16.5% cost savings on energy in new homes vs. Utah’s current code.

Building now for electric later

Utah Clean Energy has also been pushing for an “electric-ready” initiative that would require new homes to include outlets for electric heating and appliances even if they are installing gas equipment. It also requires electric-vehicle chargers.

The thinking is that electricity is the long-term play from a climate and air quality standpoint. While electrical utilities still rely heavily on fossil fuels (particularly coal in Utah), they are forecast to bring more renewable power over the short and long runs.

“The envelope lasts for 50 years,” Emerson says, “but the mechanical is only for 15 or 20 years.”

Adding the outlets during construction will be far cheaper than installing them later, and homeowners who have to suddenly replace a furnace are not inclined to hike that expense by adding electrical access.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Project Open, an all-electric apartment building, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

The Colorado Legislature this month passed legislation that includes the 2021 international code standards and an electric-ready initiative.

The Utah Home Builders Association opposes updating to the international code or requiring electric outlets where gas appliances are installed. Executive Director Ross Ford says homebuyers still want the “consistency” of traditional gas heating found in 80% of Utah homes. Builders also dispute the cost estimates coming from pro-electrification studies.

Ford says a lot of the code updates “are driven by the insulation industry” and that moving to the 2021 code would up costs without adding a commensurate amount of efficiency.

“You hit that point,” Ford says, “of diminishing returns.”

And with housing affordability in Utah at a crisis point, tacking on more expenses will price more people out of the market for new homes that are more energy-efficient than existing housing stock.

“As we increase the cost of new homes,” Ford says, “we are keeping people in older, less-efficient homes.”

Cleaning the air, cooling the planet

Burning natural gas produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), which can multiply the Wasatch Front’s major pollution challenges: wintertime particulates and summertime ozone. The Utah Division of Air Quality estimates that residential natural gas combustion is responsible for 4.1% of annual anthropogenic NOx emissions in counties along the Wasatch Front.

Burning natural gas also contributes to climate change by spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but so does electrical generation in Utah at this point.

Rocky Mountain Power’s large coal-fired plants in Emery County are the biggest source of electricity in the state, although the utility has committed to lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by 74% below 2005 levels by 2030, with new renewable projects coming on line in the next few years.

Dominion Energy, the largest supplier of natural gas to Utah homes, aligns with the Utah Home Builders Association in opposing electrification requirements.

Jorgan Hofeling, Dominion’s communications strategy adviser, cited customer choice, and says electric heating has “questionable efficacy/cost effectiveness in our state’s cold climate.”

Dominion has committed to neutralizing its carbon footprint by 2050.

Salt Lake City’s sustainable-business coordinator, Peter Nelson, encourages developers and builders to take another look at all-electric. He, Emerson and Thomas Kessinger of Utah Clean Energy collaborated with a consultant, Energy and Environmental Economics (”E3″), on a study titled “The Economics of All-Electric New Construction in Utah.”

The report concludes that all-electric housing can be cheaper to build and operate than mixed-fuel housing. Nelson is trying to get the report in front of as many builders as possible. “We want the developers to ask questions and be curious and get clarification.”

And the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project last week released a similar report that found all-electric is cheaper in cities throughout the southwest, including Salt Lake City.

Rocky Mountain Power, Utah’s largest electrical utility, says it supports whatever the state wants. “PacifiCorp [Rocky Mountain’s parent company] primarily implements energy policy in the states it serves, so we do not have a position on what specific steps Utah should take on further electrification initiatives,” says David Eskelsen, Rocky Mountain’s senior communications specialist.

Eskelsen does point to the E3 report: “The study evaluated new single-family and low-rise multifamily property types and found life cycle financial savings in every Utah climate zone.”

Rocky Mountain does not keep figures on how many customers live in all-electric housing, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports 14% of Utah homes used electric heat in 2019, while 80% used natural gas, and the remainder relied on propane, wood or other sources.

Power and politics

Electrification is yet another political football. While there has been movement in some U.S. cities to require electrification of new construction to clean the air and reduce carbon, Utah and 20 other Republican-dominated states have gone the other way, passing laws that specifically prohibit cities from disallowing natural gas in new construction.

Even requiring the outlets for “electric-ready,” which gives consumers an easier choice when equipment needs to be replaced, is a bridge too far for the Home Builders Association. They dispute the estimate that it would be less than $1,000 to add the wiring and plugs. Ford says the requirement would effectively reduce consumer choice because some builders would put in only the required electrical outlets instead of optional gas lines.

Utah Clean Energy pushed electric-ready with the Uniform Building Code Commission earlier this year, but commissioners wouldn’t go there without the state Legislature initiating it.

“In my opinion, this is a really good idea,” Tom Peterson, the commission’s chair, said when the electric-ready requirement was discussed at a February meeting. “But my main concern is that this is 100% a policy decision. … It’s not a life-safety issue, and it’s not an issue this body should take up. If the Legislature wants to put it in the building code as an issue, then I would totally help draft the language.”

A fellow commissioner, architect Jorg Ruegemer, argued that reducing climate change is a life-safety issue, but the commission declined to advance the proposal to legislators.

More all-electric in the pipeline

“It takes very little to upgrade electrical infrastructure to support emission-free homes in an initial build, but it’s problematically expensive to retrofit something after that point,” says Chris Parker, executive director of the Giv Group. “Mandating all-electric buildings is something of a nonstarter for our state, but we absolutely can and should ensure [that] buyers of new homes can easily switch to or start with emission-free energy sources if they so choose.”

“We have about 800 units of all-electric housing,” says Parker. When they first started, they separately bid all-electric and natural gas-heated alternatives, and found that the savings on ductwork, gas pipes and exhaust vents were enough to cover the higher costs of heat pumps and other clean technology.

“For our purposes,” Parker says, “we really wanted to show — apples to apples — that you really could build an all-electric building at the same costs” as conventional gas-fed buildings.

Garbett Homes, which has marketed itself as Utah’s green builder, is starting work on its first all-electric development, Azure Place, located in downtown Salt Lake City at 432 N. 300 West, says Marketing Manager Glenn Hoggan. The town homes will be completed next spring.

“This is when Azure should open for sale,” Hoggan adds, “and be followed by several other communities in 2023 and going forward.”

Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest homebuilder, has not gone all-electric, but it is building places with about 17% more energy efficiency than required by code, based on the Home Energy Rating System.

Michael Parker, vice president strategy for Ivory, says the company is looking at more dual-fuel heat pumps (which burn gas on the coldest days), but it has faced supply challenges and some resistance from heating subcontractors.

The Giv Group’s Parker predicts a coming wave of electric housing as Utah’s population doubles. “It doesn’t make sense to pipe toxic gas and then explode it in your living quarters, and then pipe the toxic fumes out of the building. Our air quality demands some other way to handle the next 3 million people.”

For Valarie Williams, just being in Project Open has been a revelation of sorts. The artist-turned-wonk is pursuing a master’s degree in city and metropolitan planning, a direction she credits to living in a more sustainable building. She also bought a plug-in hybrid car she can charge in the Project Open’s parking lot. “Seeing something like this, it gives me hope.”

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.