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California prepares to lead the nation in solar-equipped housing

Many municipalities and even a state or two have flirted with the concept of mandated solar panels on new construction but California is set to take a major leap forward on solar technology this week. The California Energy Commission is expected to vote positively on new energy standards that would require the installation of solar panels on all new homes, condominiums, and apartment buildings starting in 2020. It’s a controversial but forward-thinking move that promises to reward the state economically in terms of jobs, environmental enhancement, and energy savings.

The biggest barrier to the adoption of solar technology in the construction industry has been its cost. By the Energy Commission’s estimate, the new energy standard would add more than $10,000 to the cost of building a home. However, construction company Meritage Homes estimates that the new rules will really add $25,000 to $30,000 to the cost of a home. Solar accounts for $14,000 to $16,000 of that cost, however, the environmental improvements needed to take advantage of solar power such as energy-efficient windows, appliances, lighting, and heating add another $10,000 to $15,000, compared to the existing 2006 building code.

The difference in solar versus traditional building materials is the long-term savings. While the additional cost to add solar to new construction is significant, the technology is estimated to save owners $50,000 to $60,000 in operating costs over an anticipated 25-year lifespan.

“We’re going to be able to look the home buyer in the eye and say, ‘You are going to get your money back,’” Bob Raymer, technical director with the California Building Industry Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Commission did note that exceptions or alternatives would be offered in cases where homes or buildings are shaded by trees or buildings or when a home’s roof is too small to accommodate solar technology.

Right now, about 20 percent of new single-family homes in California employ solar technology, but experts say that number could multiply exponentially with the advent of cheaper, more efficient solar technology. This would generate a lot more business for companies that manufacture or install solar panels, many of whom are based in California already. The widespread adoption of solar technology could reduce the costs of panels and make solar more affordable in places that don’t enjoy California’s mild climate and abundant sunshine.

The plan might have been more ambitious but the commission chose not to overreach and mandate that all new homes achieve “net-zero” status, employing enough solar technology and energy efficiency strategies to offset all electricity and natural gas consumed over the course of a year. The ideal scenario is known as “partial grid defection” by which homeowners would generate the majority of their energy onsite and only use the electrical grid as a backup.

“Zero net energy isn’t enough,” Andrew McAllister, one of five state energy commissions with a vote on the new solar standards, told the Southern California News Group. “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.”

Meanwhile, builders who choose to use new and more advanced technologies such as the Tesla Powerwall will get “compliance credits,” allowing them to further reduce the size of the solar system.

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