Scuttlebutt: Solar Power in California

Scuttlebutt: Solar Power in California

     We have seen how the Trump clown show has distracted us from being able to pay full attention to how our government is operating.  The problem is that the negative actions being taken by our leaders get ignored or under-reported when public attention is focused on the game show host's monologue.

      This sucking up of all the air space also impacts our ability to learn about and comprehend positive steps being taken.   Most recently, for example, the California Energy Commission has passed a rule that requires all new homes to be fitted with solar panels.  Like it or not, this is huge news.  The new policy applies to single-family houses and multifamily units that are three stories or less, though there are some exceptions.  For those homes where rooftop solar is impractical, participation in community solar and storage projects – designed and constructed at the same time as home construction – meets the code requirements.  Thus, commercial home builders can elect to build a separate, stand-alone system instead of putting them on each home of a subdivision.

     There are other requirements for insulation, efficient appliances, and ventilation, but the solar requirement is the revolutionary step.  The standards also encourage what are called demand responsive technologies including battery storage and “smart” home technology. 

     It is estimated that installing a solar system and complying with other energy-efficiency measures required will add about $9,500 to the cost of a new home, according the the California Energy Commission. That would be offset by about $19,000 in expected energy and maintenance savings over 30 years.  Based on a 30-year mortgage, the Energy Commission estimates that the standards will add about $40 per month for the average home, but save consumers $80 per month on heating, cooling and lighting bills. Builders don't normally cheer new regulations, but Brent Anderson, a spokesman for homebuilder Meritage Homes Corp. states “Even though, in the long term, it’s the right answer.”

     Square footage of the home, number of bedrooms, and location will help determine system sizing. For example, a 2,000 sq. ft. home in Los Angeles will require approximately 2.8 kW of solar PV and a 30-unit apartment building in Oakland will require approximately 30 kW. There are other exemptions, such as buildings with minimal roof space due to a narrow envelope, zero lot area, or if there are tall buildings or other obstructions like protected tress blocking solar production.

     Residential buildings in America use roughly 1/9th of total US emissions but once rooftop solar electricity generation is factored in, homes built under the 2019 standards will use about 53 percent less energy than those under the 2016 standards.  2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards will go into effect on January 1, 2020.

     One of the key factors driving the economics of installing panels during new construction is the savings in what is called soft costs.  Though a subdivision developer may save on hardware by purchasing large numbers of panels at once, the real saving is in permitting, financing, installation labor, paying suppliers.  Any tradesman will tell that working on a retrofit is almost always more difficult than new construction and as someone who just installed a PV system, I can tell you that permitting is no joke, plus we needed to upgrade our service entrance at additional cost.

     In 2020, a homeowner will be able to claim a 26% tax credit against their solar system costs and in 2021 22%. After that, the residential solar tax credit expires (as of now).

     The only serious objection raised so far is that even with the cost savings a large utility grade solar array is a bit cheaper per watt.  However, the difference is not that great after  considering the soft costs savings, plus the power does not have to be transmitting over large distances from remote areas suffering current loss.  And why use up otherwise open land when California is scheduled to build 80,000 new homes in 2020 with millions of square feet of roof?

     Generally I am excited about a proposal to dramatically increase the use of solar power.  On the other hand, the libertarian in me gets nervous whenever the government issues wholesale new regulations.  I am particularly concerned for owner-builders.  These regulations are clearly designed with the idea that most people live in subdivisions, townhouse developments, or other industry created housing.  I'm sure the folks at Meritage Homes Corp have lawyers, engineers, and architects who have both studied the complex new regulations and have developed a cosy relationship with local building departments and inspectors.

     There are still thousands of people who are either brave enough or foolish enough to try to build their own home.  Not only will the “soft costs” not all be reduced for these throwbacks to self-reliance, but they may find dealing with the bureaucracy even more daunting than it already is.  When we recently installed our system we did something that was legal by the 2008 electrical code, but were told by the inspector that it was no longer permitted.  When asked for an answer as to what we should have done,  we were told, “that's not my job”.  We don't have access to the $100 thousand page (and counting) 2017 National Electric Code, nor do we have the cosy relationship with the inspectors that contractors must develop if they wish to succeed at their craft.  Indeed, it has been my experience that many building inspectors are easily annoyed by owner builders and clearly prefer to deal with known contractors.  Much the same can be said for PG&E, which has limited patience for individual solar installers and no corporate love of solar power to begin with.

     I also wonder about the owner builder who has the temerity to try to build a unique structure.  They will run into a maze of issues to begin with, but suppose their design is acceptable, yet meets one of the exceptions.  How are they to participate in a “community shared” solar system?

     While being an obvious advocate for solar power, this measure gives me the creeps.  It is well-intentioned and “society” will definitely benefit, but it does assume that we all live in the same type of housing with a 30-year mortgage on a home built by a developer.  Woe be to anyone who tries to go it alone.

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