Here comes the sun: State OKs solar mandate

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Solar panels affixed to a Los Altos Hills roof catch rays Friday. New updates to the state building code will mandate the use of solar panels in nearly all new home construction.

In a move energy industry leaders referred to as “historic,” “groundbreaking” and a “significant milestone,” California last week became the first state to require solar panels in nearly all new home construction.

The five-member California Energy Commission voted unanimously May 9 to approve the mandate, among updates to the state building code slated to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

“We’ve gotten very disparate stakeholders on board with this because it’s become clear to all of us that it’s the right thing to do and that the marketplace is ready,” said J. Andrew McAllister, the commission member who led the effort. “I know that the builders can build beautiful, healthy, high-performing solar homes. They’ve already been doing it.”

In addition to requiring solar photovoltaic systems in new single-family homes and new low-rise, multifamily dwellings, the adopted 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards update requirements for residential and nonresidential ventilation and nonresidential lighting. On average, the new rules will increase the cost of constructing a new home by approximately $9,500, but they will save homeowners $19,000 in energy and maintenance costs over 30 years, according to the commission. Implementation is expected to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 493 million pounds of carbon dioxide each year.

The updates are designed to help California reach energy-use reduction goals set in 2008: zero net energy use in all new homes by 2020 and in all commercial buildings by 2030.

“This is a very bold and visionary step we’re taking today, and I just want to acknowledge the fact that the fifth-largest economy in the world is adopting this standard really sends a message,” Commissioner David Hochschild said. “We will be the first state in the United States to adopt a zero net electricity standard. We will not be the last.”

Range of reactions

News of the forthcoming mandate, however, provoked responses ranging from mild irritation to cautious optimism among local stakeholders.

Considering the multitude of energy-efficient features now incorporated into new housing construction, it doesn’t always make financial sense to tack on solar, too, according to Shawn Owen, vice president of Owen Signature Homes, a builder of custom, high-end residences in both Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. The sophisticated solar photovoltaic systems Owen’s company installs cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000.

“With LED lighting, with efficient furnaces and equipment that we have now, the amount of electricity that we demand is far less than it used to be, so the amount of solar you need is far less if you want to zero out your bill,” he said.

Owen said some of his clients adopt a wait-and-see approach and choose to pre-wire for solar; after living in their new homes and assessing their energy bills over time, they can decide whether investing in a photovoltaic system offers a worthy payback.

“I just am not a believer in mandating these sort of things,” he said. “I think a free market should dictate whether or not we put these things on our roof.”

Like Owen, GreenTown Los Altos Executive Director Kris Jensen expressed concern that adding to residential construction costs could exacerbate California’s housing crisis. Nonetheless, Jensen said he considers harnessing solar power an important tool for reducing local dependence on imported energy and increasing resilience to climate change.

“Climate change is a very serious issue that we’re facing, and I think it’s going to be the defining issue of our times,” he said. “We need to move quickly to address this issue, and right now we’re moving slowly, and in many cases we’re moving backward. And I think having a mandate will push us forward.”

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