Californians — and a lot of armchair analysts from outside the state — hyperventilated or cheered in response to a requirement that new homes include solar panels for electricity starting in 2020. A more measured response is called for. This is neither disaster nor panacea, but it probably was inevitable. And, on balance, it’s a smart move.
About 15 percent of new homes already come with solar panels. Under the rules adopted by the California Energy Commission, solar will be required for all newly built houses and apartments and condos of three stories or fewer. A few sensible exceptions are built in, most notably for homes under a lot of shade. The commission also adopted new energy efficiency measures for insulation, air conditioning, etc.
The changes will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help consumers save on utility bills. Similar requirements are targeted for commercial development by 2030, when state law requires that 50 percent of the energy used in California to come from carbon-free sources.
California continues to lead on combating climate change. The Trump administration might be living in denial about the effects of greenhouse gases, but here in the Golden State we are doing what we can.
Doing good is rarely free, though. Requiring solar panels — or some other solar power technology — will increase the cost of new houses, although it’s much cheaper to install during construction than after a house is built. The official estimate is about $10,000, though unofficial estimates vary.
It’s true that housing already is outrageously expensive, and this is one more cost. Yet the expense upfront is more than offset over time. The average mortgage payment will increase about $40 per month, but homeowners will save $80 per month on heating, cooling and lighting. That might not soothe people saving for their first down payment, but it should help.
People worried about costs also should remember that the requirement only applies to new houses. The millions of homes that already exist don’t have to add solar.
About 135,000 homes in the state add solar annually, according to industry figures. Hopefully, more will over time. Research has shown that when people see solar power in their neighborhood, they are more likely to install it themselves. Requiring it on new homes could nudge the established market in a greener direction.
Costs also could come down over time. With widespread adoption, economies of scale will improve, and there will be incentives for innovation.
Expense isn’t the only reason to temper enthusiasm. Widespread availability of solar power can strain the grid when the sun is shining, and demand from solar-equipped buildings tends to rise after the sun sets. This phenomenon — amusingly called the “duck curve” — won’t be easily fixed, but it isn’t insurmountable. It will require investment in the grid and also in-home electricity storage, so people can generate power during the day and use it when the sun isn’t shining.
There are better, cheaper ways to fight climate change. More urban density is high on that list, but a bill in the Legislature this year that would have set aggressive new standards failed. Reducing vehicle emissions is another great approach, but the Trump administration wants to roll back emission standards.