Calif. requires solar on new homes, a first for U.S.

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Many new homes in California must have solar panels on their roofs under a law that took effect this year, the first such mandate in the nation.

The law approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC) under a building code update requires solar on new single-family homes and multifamily buildings up to three stories high. That will wrap in some apartments and condominiums.

The law will have a national impact, according to environmental groups. Solar in California, the nation’s most populous state, already comprises about half of all the solar power in the United States. Solar currently powers more than 6.8 million homes in the state and generates nearly 20% of the state’s electricity.

“I’m thrilled that the state is now going to create an opportunity for all new homeowners to be able to create their own electricity,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director with Environment California. “It will help stave off the worst impacts of climate change, reduce our air pollution, and help educate hundreds of millions of people about the benefits of clean energy.”

It could take several months before the impacts are seen on a wide-scale basis. The mandate kicks in when a permit is drawn for new construction. Many developers took out permits at the end of 2019 to avoid dealing with code updates. So the bulk of new homes may not have solar until the end of 2020.

However, Stacey Reineccius, CEO of Powertree Services Inc., which works with multifamily property owners on adding solar, storage and electric vehicle charging, said he sees action on the horizon.

“We have seen a real uptick in interest from architects and project developers who are coming to grips with the fact that they have to do it,” he said. “It’s definitely going to make an impact. It will bring more solar to tenants.”

Some builders already have been adding solar as a sales pitch. Lennar Corp., one of the biggest builders in the state, has a subsidiary selling solar-topped homes.

A few California cities have been requiring solar on new homes, including Lancaster and Santa Monica in Los Angeles County. San Francisco requires solar or “living roofs” using plants, water retention and other elements. Davis, west of Sacramento, requires solar on new commercial buildings.

The Energy Commission code change followed a long effort to increase solar in the Golden State, which has been scaling up its use of renewable energy for years. In 2004, then state Sen. Kevin Murray (D) looked at a mandate that would require solar on half of all new homes, said Bob Raymer, technical director at the California Building Industry Association (CBIA), a powerful trade group for builders.

In response, Terry Tamminen, adviser to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), suggested something else: a voluntary financial incentive for adding solar, said Jacobson. The state’s goal of adding a “million solar roofs” was born. It recently hit that goal.

That laid the groundwork for the newest mandate, Jacobson said. But not without opposition. The California Building Industry Association opposed the solar mandate in 2004.

“At the time solar was a whole lot more expensive,” Raymer said. “It also took up a whole lot more space than it does today.”

The building trade group supported the updated standards that began this year, after the Energy Commission agreed to concessions, Raymer said.

Off-site solar option

The Energy Commission gave two alternatives to putting solar panels on rooftops because the mandate adds about $9,000 to the price of the home, Raymer said. Instead, homebuyers can lease the panels from a third party, for about the same, or less, than their cost of electricity. Or builders could invest in a nearby “community solar” project.

With the lease option, Raymer said, “You don’t necessarily see an increase in the price of the home. For entry-level housing, that’s a very good thing.”

Raymer said the mandate — which is actually for renewable energy and not limited to solar — leaves the door open for the Energy Commission in later building code updates to require fuel-cell technologies when those are available.

The off-site solar option is needed, Raymer said, as demand increases for electricity in homes. The current amount of rooftop solar needed to provide electricity in homes is about 3 to 4 kilowatts, Raymer said. With an all-electric home and two electric vehicles in the garage, that will grow to 12 to 15 kW, he said.

“Most single-family home roofs do not have enough space to meet the needs for 12 to 15 kWs,” Raymer said. “Down the road we’re probably going to see a mix of on-site and off-site [energy] to meet the needs of the way design is headed.”

The off-site option for solar is controversial. Last year, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) proposed an off-site location for solar panels instead of putting them on homes. The Energy Commission delayed action, saying it wasn’t clear if the proposal met the goals of the “community solar” option.

Jean Su, energy director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said SMUD proposed putting the panels 100 miles away from the community they were supposed to benefit. It speaks to what CBD sees as a problem with the Energy Commission mandate, she said.

Although the mandate includes multifamily houses of up to three stories, “a lot of people would agree that it’s not clear what the California solar mandate will do for environmental justice communities,” Su said, referring to low-income communities.

Su said the CBD and other groups will challenge proposals to build off-site solar facilities to make sure they benefit communities. That means putting them close to homes and giving residents a vote on how the profits will be used.

Overall, Su said, green groups see the law as beneficial.

“The more distributed solar there is on rooftops the less fossil fuel-polluting plants will be out there, and that on a whole is beneficial for environmental justice generally,” Su said.