Future Tense

In Two Years, Most New California Homes Will Come With Solar Panels

Workers of Luminalt, a solar panel company, install solar panels on the roof of a home on May 9, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Workers of Luminalt, a solar panel company, install solar panels on the roof of a home on May 9, 2018 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California, a place of many recent firsts, will soon be the first state to require solar panels on all newly built homes. On Wednesday, the California Building Standards Commission unanimously voted in favor of requiring new residential units of up to three stories to have solar-paneling installations, including apartments and condos. The requirement goes into effect in 2020.

The move is the latest example of a California environmental policy that could eventually lead other states to follow. And while it will increase the upfront costs of homebuilding in a state where exorbitant housing costs are already a crisis in many areas, the savings should ultimately save homeowners money. At first, the mandate will increase the cost of constructing a new home by about $9,500, the California Energy Commission said in its report on the policy. Over a 30-year span, however, the mandate will “save $19,000 in energy and maintenance” fees, the commission predicts. (Some homes, like those that have small roofs or are located in the shade, will be exempt from the new requirement.)

Among the good news is that, at minimum, single-family houses built under the new standard are predicted to use about 7 percent less energy than those built according to the current standards, last updated two years ago, because they will include energy-efficient features like thermal envelopes in walls and windows. Once “solar electricity generation is factored in”, homes are projected to use 53 percent less energy than those built under the previous standards, the California Energy Commission report said. Greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 700,000 metric tons in three years, which is “equivalent to taking 115,000 fossil fuel cars off the road,” concluded the report.

Not surprisingly, the 2019 requirements will bring upon dramatic changes to the look and function of California homes. With the mandate in place, newly built residential homes are encouraged to have “battery storage and heat pump water heaters,” the California Energy Commission report said. Moreover, nonresidential buildings are encouraged to make “maximum use of LED technology” for indoor and outdoor lighting.

To comply with the newest mandate, but avoid paying upfront costs, Californians can either lease the solar panels or sign a “power purchase agreement,” Drew Bohan, executive director of the energy commission said. The agreement will pay for electricity without homeowners having to buy the panels. When having individual solar panels is not feasible, homeowners must have access to a community solar project instead, which will have the capacity to power multiple buildings.

In light of the catastrophic wild fires California has suffered from in the past year, speakers at the Wednesday public hearing emphasized that solar panels could be helpful in the future if such disasters were to strike again, reported NPR. For one thing, solar panels could help people stuck in extended periods of power outages. With California electricity utility PG&E under scrutiny for allegedly causing the recent Camp Fire in North California, fire, any move that reduces dependence on traditional electricity delivery could come as a relief to many Californians, even though they’ll remain just as connected to the grid.

However it shakes out, the policy will be a boon to the solar industry. Right now, only 15 percent of homes are built with solar in California, so the requirement will bring a “big boost” to the industry, reported Vox.