Solar Mandate Added to California Building Code

by Kacey Larsen

The California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) voted unanimously to confirm a solar panel mandate on new homes in California starting in 2020. This newly established building code will require low-rise residential buildings—including single-family homes and multifamily dwellings of three stories or less—to use solar for new permits dating Jan. 1, 2020, or later. [Note, there are some exceptions for homes that are too shady.]

In addition to the solar mandate, the 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards tightens green homebuilding standards with requirements for thicker attic and wall insulation and improved ventilation systems to prevent heat transfer and improve indoor air quality, respectively. The 2019 Standards also encourage the inclusion of battery storage and heat-pump water heaters for new home building. Building energy efficiency standards aim to reduce wasteful, uneconomic, inefficient or unnecessary consumption of energy by ensuring builders use energy-efficient and energy-conserving technologies and construction practices while remaining cost-effective over the 30-year lifespan of a building. The California Energy Commission (CEC) reports that single-family homes built following the 2019 standards will use about 7 percent less energy than those built under the 2016 standards; upon factoring in the solar mandate, homes built under the 2019 standards will use about 53 percent less energy than those under the 2016 standards.

With this vote, California becomes the first state in the country to adopt the clean energy requirement. The California Building Industry Association estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the single-family homes in the state currently have solar panel installations. Seven California cities, like San Francisco, already have some form of solar mandate on new buildings. The state has set the goal of drawing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, thus reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

The CEC performed a detailed analysis and gathered public input from utilities, builders, and the solar and lighting industries to strike a balance between reducing greenhouse gas emissions while remaining cost effective for homebuyers and limiting increased construction costs. However, additional costs will be procured by a builder and homebuyer upfront. According to the CEC, the 2019 Standards altogether—including the solar mandate and other efficiency measures—are expected to add on average about $9,500 to the cost of new houses but are projected to be offset by about $19,000 in energy savings over a 30-year period.

“We don’t support mandates on builders, but the approach that was taken by the Energy Commission was flexible and less costly,” says Dan Dunmoyer, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association. “For that reason, we have been supportive about this rulemaking effort.”

Dunmoyer adds that besides adding solar panels to a new home’s roof, builders can work with local utility providers to provide solar-generated energy to new homes. Ultimately, homebuyers, starting in 2020, will have the option to pay for solar panels outright, lease them or enter into a power purchase agreement with developers, reports the CEC.

The California Building Industry Association offers more resources on the new solar mandate and more in its “Codes Corner,” which can be found here. Compliance Manuals, Compliance Documents and more from the CEC can be found here.

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