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The California Energy Commission has decided to go ahead with requiring solar systems on new housing. A cost estimate of $10,500 per unit has been circulated, and the claim that it will pay for itself has been made.

My guess is that the cost estimate is low-balled, and whatever might be the time frame for repayment, this is more money than will be needed up front to build. For market rate housing this will drive up the floor for project feasibility, and for affordable housing it will take this amount right out of scarce and precious housing subsidies. This is bad policy and needs to be reconsidered.

Since 2000, the cost of developing housing in Sonoma County has increased by well over 100 percent while incomes are up only about 30 percent. There are multiple causes for this disparity, but green building requirements are a factor, and zero net energy will push costs higher.

Climate change and serious pollution are the result of fossil-fuel use. The question here isn’t whether we should take climate change seriously, but is instead: What is the most efficient, effective and fair way to accomplish our objective?

The zero-net-energy policy — requiring homes to generate electricity equal to the amount they use — reflects a situation that existed a decade or more ago. At that time, the potential of utility-scale wind and solar wasn’t as obvious as it is today. And the technology that would allow a transition to all-electric building energy systems wasn’t as advanced.

At the present time, though, large-scale wind and solar have reached a cost level similar to fossil fuel power generation, and a building boom in large-scale renewable energy production is underway.

The current trend toward utility-scale renewable power generation is likely to continue. No doubt, small systems will continue to expand as well, and both will contribute to our renewable future. However, the growth of renewable energy production isn’t dependent on the proliferation of rooftop systems.

The constraint for solar and wind is their variability. They don’t produce electricity at a steady, reliable rate because solar needs sunshine and wind needs wind. Technologies for energy storage and efficient long-distance transmission do exist. But these will need to be in place before solar and wind can actually become the mainstays of an entirely renewable energy economy, regardless of the scale by which solar power is produced. The misdirection of zero net is more obvious with the understanding that solar power isn’t limited by the amount of collector space but by the storage and transmission infrastructure it will require.

For housing, the most important thing we can do to address climate change is to move to all-electric energy systems. All-electric homes have become possible because technologies have advanced to the point that electric heating cost is comparable to natural gas.

A house that has a rooftop system and still uses natural gas or propane continues to be a source of carbon dioxide. And the production of gas is a terribly polluting activity, particularly when fracking is considered. Add to this the irony that if we are serious about a carbon-free future, all gas systems will need to be torn out and replaced with electric power in the future. Why not do the job right the first time?

All-electric homes powered by increasing levels of renewable energy are the clean energy future, and they should be exempt from requirements for on-site energy production. While homeowners who have voluntarily installed solar systems deserve to be commended, there is no coherent rationale for requiring another expensive mandate on housing.

John Lowry is a member of the Sonoma County Planning Commission and a retired affordable-housing developer. He lives in Sebastopol.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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