There are new financial incentives for Marshall fire victims to rebuild greener homes

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A home in Louisville on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, after it was destroyed by the Marshall fire. The Marshall fire ignited Dec. 30, 2021, in Boulder County and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in and around Superior and Louisville, and left thousands of people scrambling to evacuate, driven by winds that sometimes exceeded 100 mph.

Marshall fire victims will have some extra financial help rebuilding their homes to modern green construction standards. 

Xcel Energy announced a new package of incentives on Thursday, which would provide fire victims $7,500 to $37,500 to rebuild homes to a range of green building standards. Solar company SunShare has also guaranteed Marshall fire victims access to a planned community solar garden. All available details of the new incentives are included in materials prepared for an upcoming Louisville city council meeting.

“Our hearts continue to go out to the victims of this disaster," said Xcel Energy spokesperson Michelle Aguayo. "We want to support the community’s energy goals and these offerings both accomplish this and help our customers as they choose how to best rebuild their homes.”

The commitments come as debates over the new climate-friendly building codes have divided the two communities hit hardest by the most destructive fire in Colorado history. Superior is now considering adopting the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, a set of standards designed to reduce energy costs and climate change impacts. Louisville adopted the same code last year and amendments to encourage all-electric appliances and renewable energy generation.

The incentives are a nudge to encourage residents to adopt the tougher building codes. Xcel Energy, for example, would provide $7,500 to any fire victim rebuilding to the 2021 standards. Residents could gain up to $30,000 if they build to even stricter voluntary standards, like rules for a nearly air-tight passive house.

The SunShare program also gives residents a simple way to comply with Louisville's net-zero standard, which requires households to meet their household electricity needs with renewable energy. The solar company and local resident Marcel Arsenault said Monday they would match up to $200,000 in contributions to a fund that would help reduce the electricity bills of residents who rebuild their homes with electric heat instead of natural gas systems.

Other promises of financial assistance have not been finalized, according to the materials prepared by Louisville city staff. The Boulder County Community Foundation has set up a donor-advised fund to assist with rebuilding efforts. It plans to make details available in the coming weeks. Gov. Jared Polis has pledged to support legislation to help with reconstruction efforts, but a bill has not been introduced. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi has yet to confirm a plan for a 50 percent discount on energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.

But Audrey DeBarros, who lost her home in Louisville, worries rebuilding costs will still exceed the payout from her insurance company. She and some other residents want city leaders to "suspend the code" for fire victims and let them rebuild to 2018 standards.

"I'm sure there will be some residents who have sufficient insurance coverage or want to voluntarily go to the new standards. 'Yay!' for them," DeBarros said. "We feel like the 2018 code is good enough." 

Other residents see the green building code as a unique opportunity to address global warming. Susan Nedell, another Louisville fire victim, noted buildings are one of Colorado's largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. After record drought and dry weather drove the Marshall fire, she wants her community to take action. 

"It's not the time to back down and build like we use to," Nedell said. 

In all the debate over the new codes, it’s unclear how much they would increase construction costs. An initial estimate provided to Louisville found the city's current codes would add at least $20,000 to the cost of rebuilding an average home lost to the Marshall fire. 

Christine Brinker, the senior buildings policy manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said those numbers were based on rushed estimates from a pair of builders. Her organization worked with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on a revised set of numbers.

Based on those estimates, she's confident the additional incentives would more than cover building costs that increased due to the new building codes, but not other building costs driven by inflation and a tight construction market. 

"The under insurance issues will still be there, but the concerns about any extra costs for building their house to be more energy-efficient, healthier, safer, more resilient, more sustainable?” Brinker said. “Those costs will be covered by this incentive package.”

The Louisville city council will debate whether to revise its building codes on Tuesday.