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California first in nation to require solar panels on new homes

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The state’s new building code, which goes into effect in 2020, will save an estimated $1.7 billion in energy costs over 30 years

man installing solar panels Shutterstock

California passed a new statewide building code yesterday that requires all homes from 2020 onward to have rooftop solar and advanced energy efficiency measures. These moves reinforce the state’s role as a progressive harbinger of more stringent environmental standards.

The 2019 Building Energy Code, passed by a unanimous 5-0 vote by the California Energy Commission, positions the state at the forefront of more sustainable residential construction. It also bolsters the residential solar industry, installers, and solar manufacturers in a state that already generates 10 percent of its power from solar.

The new rules will require residential buildings up to three stories high, including single-family homes and condos, be built with solar installations. According to the group Safe California Energy, the updated code will save Californians $1.7 billion on energy costs over the next 30 years, and cut home energy use by 53 percent.

The California Building Industry Association supported the rule, though it did say it would have liked them to be delayed an additional two or three years.

“I know from experience that energy-efficient homes sell faster and bring a better price, and data from the Department of Energy backs me up on that,” says Brandon De Young, executive vice president of De Young Properties, which specializes in energy-efficient construction in the Fresno area. “People don’t want to throw money away on wasted energy when they can move into a more efficient, comfortable, and healthy house instead.”

The move will reduce emissions, but will it make the housing crisis more challenging to solve?

These new mandates will help the state meet its emissions reduction targets, cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

But since it will add to the cost of building homes in an already housing-starved state, some builders and housing advocates worry it will make residential construction that much more difficult. According to the California Association of Realtors, the median price of a single-family home in California is $565,000. Currently, roughly 1 in 5 new homes in California are built with solar installations.

California’s lack of new housing construction has led to significant out-migration from the state, according to a recent report from the group Next 10, and if construction doesn’t accelerate, the shortage may damage the state’s economic growth.

The California Energy Commission estimates the new mandates will add $9,500 to the cost of building a new home. But, the energy savings from the new mandates, estimated to be $16,251 on average, will make up for the up-front expense.

The new rules allow builders to install solar panels in communal areas instead of rooftops, if that’s more efficient, and also add home batteries for energy storage, such as the Tesla Powerwall. Exceptions will be made for buildings shaded by trees or taller buildings, or with roofs too small to accommodate photovoltaic panels.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the new mandate creates challenges for state utilities. By bolstering home energy production, it will increase the amount of excess power on transmission lines, requiring adjustments to the grid.

Solar power currently supplies 1.3 percent of the nation’s electricity output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The new California mandates approved yesterday also include lighting upgrades for commercial buildings expected to cut energy usage by 30 percent, as well as ventilation requirements for homes and healthcare facilities.