Solar panel installations will soar under new rules

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The California Energy Commission voted 5-0 on Wednesday to require nearly all new homes, condos and apartment buildings up to three stories high to have solar panels on the roofs. It takes effect in 2020.

It’s all part of a larger goal of shrinking the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

There will be some exceptions, like new structures built in shaded areas.

Right now, between 15 and 20 percent of new homes already come with solar built in.

This law already exists in San Francisco, but Wednesday’s vote makes it statewide. California is the first state in the U.S. to pass such a mandate.

The commission held a public comment hearing before the vote, and most of the groups there, which included environmental groups, utilities and of course solar companies, strongly support the new standards.

Opponents to the new standards include the gas industry and California realtors.

Also some builders oppose it. Local contractor Joan Barton, head of Dirty Girl Construction, told DnA she considers the new standards to be government overreach.

“It’s like an H.O.A. gone wild,” she said, and that adding solar panels should be up to the homeowner, “as it has both design and financial impacts.”

Barton says that entirely reliable infrastructure and product-specific R&D is not in place yet to support such a massive change at this time.

Despite the increase in construction costs, the California Building Industry Association generally supports the plan, but expressed a preference to delay the launch.

However, Bill Watt, an Orange County home builder, told the Orange County Register that building affordable housing should take precedence over enshrining solar panel enforcement. “Why not just pause for a little while, focus on the affordability and housing issues, then circle back?”

Republican legislators don’t like it; a Fox News reporter asked if this was another example of the state’s “ever-evolving nanny-state policies, having recently prohibited everything from plastic bags to foie gras – and even flirting with phasing out internal combustion engines.”

Also, solar panels aren’t cheap. The commission estimates the panels would increase construction costs for a single-family home by roughly $10,000. But the commission says consumers would get that money and more back in energy savings.

So if you have a 30-year mortgage on your home, the Energy Commission estimates that these new standards will add about $40 to your average monthly payment, but save you $80 on monthly heating, cooling and lighting bills.

Still, opponents to the new standards say the added cost will put home ownership even further out of reach for many here in California.

The California Energy Commission still needs backing from the state’s Building Standards Commission, which is expected to sign off.

The state updates its building codes, including energy efficiency standards, every three years. In the next three years the environmental groups want to push the Commission further: to mandate an end to all gas-powered home heating and systems and make everything electric.

To the folks who cook with gas and couldn’t imagine going electric, the Sierra Club’s Rachel Golden says stoves are not a top priority because they use relatively little electricity -- but she says the future is in high-performing advanced electric induction stoves.