California proposal may require new homes to come with solar panels

Photo (c) DiyanaDimitrova - Getty Images

The decision would be a huge investment in clean energy, but critics say home prices would skyrocket

Residents in California could be seeing a lot more homes installed with solar panels within the next couple of years.

The Orange County Register reports that a vote on Wednesday by the California Energy Commission may make it mandatory for all new homes to come standard with the panels starting in 2020. The decision would be in line with the state’s lofty goals for reducing reliance on natural gas, increasing battery storage, and promoting clean energy.

If passed, the new mandate would apply to all new houses, condos, and apartment buildings that are up to three stories tall and do not meet exception requirements, such as being too shaded by trees or too small for the panels to be installed. Nevertheless, Bob Raymer -- technical director for the California Building Association -- says that the move would be unprecedented.

“California is about to take a quantum leap in energy standards. No other state in the nation mandates solar, and we are about to take that leap,” he said.

Pulling back from zero net energy

While the new mandate would vastly increase solar energy utilization in California, critics point out that it actually falls short of net zero energy goals that were proposed more than a decade ago.

Under that plan, regulators and clean energy advocates had hoped that all new homes would eventually be able to produce enough solar energy to offset any use of electricity or natural gas over the course of a whole year. However, state officials say that this goal isn’t realistic right now because many homes still depend on the state energy grid to power their homes at night.

“Zero net energy isn’t enough. If we pursue (zero net energy) as a comprehensive policy, we’d be making investments that would be somewhat out of touch with our long-term goals,” said state energy commissioner Andrew McAllister.

Driving up home costs

While the proposal would certainly be a boon to the solar energy industry, home builders say that installing solar panels on every new home could drive up costs dramatically.

C.R. Herro, vice president of environmental affairs for Meritage Homes, estimates that the new energy standards would add between $25,000 and $30,000 to construction costs compared to rates under the 2006 building code.

He goes on to say that $14,000 - $16,000 of that cost is related to solar energy implementation and $10,000 - $15,000 comes from increased insulation and more efficient windows, appliances, lighting, and heating. However, he concedes that the upgrades would save homeowners $50,000 - $60,000 in operating costs over 25 years.

Pushing homes out of reach?

Although consumers would financially benefit in the long run, many housing experts say that the increased initial cost may push already expensive homes in California even further out of reach. Bill Watt – home builder, designer, and former president of the Orange County Building Industry Association – suggests that regulators focus on price point before implementing sweeping changes.

“We’re not building enough housing already. Why not just pause for a little while, focus on the affordability and housing issues, then circle back?” he asks.

Not surprisingly, this line of thinking isn’t at all in line with environmentalists. “The technology is developing so fast, we think the timeline was a bit slow,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

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