California will require solar panels on all new homes. What that means to you

SolarCraft workers Joel Overly (L) and Craig Powell (R) install a solar panel on the roof of a home on February 26, 2015 in San Rafael, California.
SolarCraft workers Joel Overly (L) and Craig Powell (R) install a solar panel on the roof of a home on February 26, 2015 in San Rafael, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Starting in 2020, if you want to build a new house or small apartment building in California, it must have solar panels on the roof.

The California Energy Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to require solar panels in the state’s building code. That yes vote makes California the first state in the country with such a rule.

Why is the Energy Commission doing this now?

The solar panel requirement is the culmination of many years of slowly requiring new houses in California to be more and more energy efficient.

Every three  years, the Energy Commission recommends updates to the state’s energy efficiency building codes. Recently, the Commission has required new homes to be “solar ready,” or able to host solar panels, and have more efficient walls and attics.

The big goal, however, is to have all new houses in California be “net zero energy” by 2020, meaning they would produce more energy than they consume. 

Requiring  solar panels  for all new single-family homes and apartment buildings smaller than three stories would kick start efforts to meet that aggressive goal, said Energy Commission spokeswoman Amber Beck.

The Energy Commission estimates the solar panel requirement will add $9,500 to the cost of a new house.
The Energy Commission estimates the solar panel requirement will add $9,500 to the cost of a new house.
File photo by Steven Kiesling

Is this going to make houses more expensive?

Yes. But the Energy Commission’s projects the long-term benefits of owning solar panels outweighing the upfront costs.

How much more expensive?  That depends on who you ask because the numbers vary widely.

The Energy Commission estimates the solar panel requirement will add $9,500 to the cost of a new house. But home builders say a solar panel requirement will add up to $30,000, as C.R. Herro, the vice president of environmental affairs for Meritage Homes, told The San Bernardino Sun. 

Solar panels will save you money in the long term, because utilities will deduct the amount of energy your solar panels produce from the total amount you used off the grid. It's called net-metering.

But those savings can take time. The Energy Commission estimates Californians will save $9,500, on average, over 30-years. You’ll save more if you live in a hot, sunny area like the Antelope Valley or the high desert, and less if you live in a cooler, coastal area in Northern California.

If you’re a renter, though, it’s more complicated. If your landlord passes through the energy savings to you, you will save money. But if they don’t, you may end up paying higher rent to offset the additional cost of the solar panels.

How much will this help fight climate change?

Putting solar panels on all new houses would mean Californians use less electricity and, as a result, have lower carbon emissions than they would otherwise. But the savings aren’t huge. Stay with us on the numbers:

We’ll also generate more solar energy. This new proposal would result in another 200 megawatts of solar being built throughout California (and remember, there’s 1000 MW in a GW), or less than one percent of the total amount currently installed.

Is requiring solar panels on new houses really the best way to save energy and fight climate change?

California is trying to slash its emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. Getting there requires the state to increase the pace of reductions substantially over what’s been achieved in the last decade. That means every little bit helps, said Ethan Elkind, the director of the climate program at UC Berkeley School of Law.

“There are other ways we can reduce more, but it’s a critical way to reduce emissions going forward,” he said. “If we can start reducing the emissions associated with electricity generation, that is going to make up a sizable chunk of our goal.”

But Alex Steffen, who writes about sustainability and urban planning, said the state’s biggest climate challenge is the fact that Californians drive so much. Transportation emissions are 40% of the total – twice as much as electricity generation.

He worries that the requirement to put solar panels on every new house could make it harder to increase housing density in cities and near public transit, which he says would have a much bigger effect on emissions reductions.

“Because of the lack of density, people are forced to drive everywhere. You need a car. Until we tackle that problem, doing things like requiring solar panel son new construction is a band aid,” he said.

How many jobs will this create in the solar industry?

Requiring that all new homes in California have solar panels is a huge boost to the solar industry. The Energy Commission estimates 5,423 new jobs, largely in solar installation and maintenance.

Are there any other cities that require solar panels on new houses right now?

Yes, four: Lancaster, Santa Monica, San Francisco and Sebastopol. The last three also require solar panels on all new commercial buildings.

UPDATES:

12:30 p.m.: This article updated with the unanimous "yes" vote.

This article originally published at 8:30 a.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount by which California aims to slash emissions by 2030. The story has been updated to reflect the correct goal of reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels. KPCC regrets the error.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.