California Solar Panel Mandate for New Buildings Advances
LOS ANGELES — California regulators voted Wednesday to require builders to include solar power and battery storage in many new commercial structures as well as high-rise residential projects. It is the latest initiative in the state’s vigorous efforts to hasten a transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources.
The five-member California Energy Commission approved the proposal unanimously. It will now be taken up by the state’s Building Standards Commission, which is expected to include it in an overall revision of the building code in December.
The energy plan, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, also calls for new homes to be wired in ways that ease and even encourage conversion of natural-gas heating and appliances to electric sources.
“The future we’re trying to build together is a future beyond fossil fuels,” David Hochschild, the chair of the Energy Commission, said ahead of the agency’s vote. “Big changes require everyone to play a role. We all have a role in building this future.”
The commercial buildings that would be affected by the plan include hotels, offices, medical offices and clinics, retail and grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and civic spaces like theaters, auditoriums and convention centers.
The provisions would supplement requirements that took effect last year mandating that new single-family homes and multifamily dwellings up to three stories high include solar power.
Homes and businesses use nearly 70 percent of California’s electricity and are responsible for a quarter of its greenhouse gas emissions, according to the commission. It said the proposals approved Wednesday would reduce emissions over 30 years as much as if nearly 2.2 million cars were taken off the road for a year.
Any increase in construction costs is expected to be minimal, the Energy Commission said. Adding solar power and storage during construction is considered more cost-effective than retrofitting.
Lindsay Buckley, a spokeswoman for the Energy Commission, said that “while there is no guarantee” that the Building Standards Commission will adopt the plan, it had never rejected such a proposal after approval by the energy panel.
Many California cities have building codes that restrict or ban natural gas in new construction — 49 municipalities in all, according to the Sierra Club — but the changes advanced on Wednesday would greatly extend the push away from fossil fuels.
Along with consumers and environmental groups, representatives of electric companies including Southern California Edison, one of the state’s investor-owned utilities, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District spoke in support of the changes.
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The commission heard some opposition during its development of the plan, in particular from Southern California Gas, which provides much of the natural gas to residential, commercial and industrial customers in Southern California, Mr. Hochschild said.
The California Building Industry Association took a neutral position, though some utility union members cautioned against any ban on natural gas, arguing that it could increase customer bills and hurt jobs.
“Instead of a reckless push for building electrification, has the commission considered advocating for an appliance replacement program?” Carlos Portillo, a member of the Utility Workers Union of America, wrote to the panel.
The head of the organization that represents the state’s solar power and battery companies said that while she felt the code change was needed, policies under review by other state regulators could undermine the benefits.
The official, Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, said that while utilities had praised the commission’s plan, they had proposed to reduce the benefits that homeowners and businesses receive for excess electricity they produce and send to the grid.
Owners of rooftop solar energy systems receive compensation equivalent to the retail cost of electricity, an arrangement that utility companies argue is unfair to those without such systems. The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees investor-owned utilities, is considering a modification to the arrangement, known as net energy metering, in future solar installations.
A significant change could reduce or eliminate the savings that solar power and storage provide to residential and business customers. “Net metering is the one opportunity for the little guy to get relief, and they want to put the kibosh on it,” Ms. Del Chiaro said.
Californians have felt an urgency to move away from using fossil fuels as climate change has brought extreme weather, which has contributed to some of the state’s most devastating wildfires. And beyond reducing carbon emissions, solar power has been embraced as a way to cope with blackouts.
Investor-owned utilities have cut power for as long as a week to prevent electrical equipment from starting fires. So consumers have increasingly sought solar panels and battery storage as secondary energy sources.
During public comments to the Energy Commission on Wednesday, speakers urged regulators to help ensure the safety of the state’s residents in the face of all of the devastation.
“We can hear the passion and just the urgency and the emotion beyond what’s motivating people to get behind this,” Commissioner Andrew McAllister said. “California is being forced to lead even more than ever before.”
The last big change in the energy provisions of the state’s building code — the requirement for new single-family homes to be equipped with solar power — was approved in 2018. The rules took effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The impact so far has been limited, since builders who already had permits could operate under the previous standards, and the coronavirus pandemic disrupted work and the issuing of permits.
The primary focus, Mr. McAllister said, should be to recognize the important role that changes in the building code can play in helping reduce emissions. “This is a huge lever that California has to pull to get the attention of the market,” he said.