California will see a sixfold jump in sun-powered homes built each year following a “landmark” vote Wednesday requiring solar panels for virtually all new homes by 2020.
The California Energy Commission, which oversees energy portions of the state building code, voted 5-0 to adopt the solar-power mandate. One commissioner called it a “landmark vote” sending a message about the state’s resolve to curb global warming.
The vote is just the latest development in an ongoing confrontation over climate change between the Trump administration in Washington and Gov. Jerry Brown in Sacramento.
“This is a very bold and visionary step we’re taking today,” said David Hochschild, one of five members on the appointed energy panel. “We will be the first state to adopt the ‘zero-net-electricity’ standard. We will not be the last.”
Currently, solar panels are installed on roughly 15,000 new homes and 135,000 existing homes in California each year, said Kelly Knutsen, technology advancement director for the California Solar and Storage Association, an industry group.
Under the new plan, builders likely will install solar on more than 100,000 new homes annually by 2020, Knutsen predicted — a six-fold jump. That will boost new solar-electric systems to around 235,000 a year on new and existing homes, a 56 percent increase overall.
“The commission’s decision today is undeniably historic,” said Rick Umoff, California director of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The vote before an overflow crowd in a Sacramento sends the proposed energy standards to the California Building Standards Commission for inclusion in the new state building code, which gets updated every three years.
The building commission, which will review the proposed standards next fall, traditionally accepts energy commission recommendations without change, said Amber Beck, an energy commission spokeswoman. Legislative review isn’t required.
The mandate raises anew affordability concerns for a state already battling a severe housing shortage and high housing costs.
Bob Raymer, technical director of the California Building Industry Association, estimated the revisions will add an estimated $8,400 to $12,400 to the current cost of building a home, depending on where the home is built. That’s in addition to $8,500 for energy-efficiency upgrades adopted over the past eight years.
But savings on energy bills will offset those upfront costs over time, said Beck.
The energy commission estimated the solar mandate would save the homebuyer an estimated $19,000 in utility costs over the life of a 30-year mortgage.
That’s not counting the environmental benefits. Mazi Shirakh, an energy commission engineer, said a home built to the new 2020 code will cut carbon dioxide emissions by almost 30 percent – and by more than half compared with homes built to the code adopted in 2000.
“We have these ambitious goals for greenhouse gas reductions,” said Andrew McAllister, the lead commissioner for energy efficiency. “(In) California, we do believe in climate change. We believe in facts.”
In addition to solar, the proposed energy rules would require improvements to insulation in the walls and attics of new homes as well as more efficient windows, water heaters and other appliances, accounting for just under half the added costs.
The new building code will be approved in mid-2019 and will apply to all houses and low-rise condo and apartment buildings getting building permits after Jan. 1, 2020. Exceptions or alternatives will be allowed when homes are shaded by trees or buildings or when the home’s roofs are too small to accommodate solar panels.
Twenty-six people representing industry groups, electric utilities and environmentalists spoke during Wednesday’s 2 ½-hour session. Several praised provisions allowing community solar arrays when there’s not enough roof space for individual systems and encouraging battery storage technology.
Batteries, speakers said, allow the homeowner to capture the cheaper electricity produced by the rooftop solar panels during the day for use at night when electric rates go up and people crank up their air conditioners, turn on TV’s and boost demand for power from the grid.
Raymer said the commission’s willingness to work with industry in reducing costs and giving greater design flexibility was key to gaining support from homebuilders.
“No other state in the nation will have anything close to this,” Raymer said. “And you can bet every one of the 49 other states will be watching closely to see what happens.”
Two speakers protested some technical provisions in the proposed code, and one complained the energy commission was making “a big mistake” by locking into today’s technology.
“There are hundreds of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, through accelerating technological advances, there will be thousands in a few years,” said Peter Esposito, owner of a solar home in Colorado. “I urge you not to lock in any favored technology today. … Let the consumers choose.”
Most speakers, however, supported the solar mandate.
“Thanks to the energy commission, the state is a national leader in energy-efficiency standards,” said Eddie Moreno of the Sierra Club California. “Solar power will reduce reliance on gas plants, improve air quality and cut climate pollution.