California reverses course on common sense solar policy

By Bronte Payne
Director, Go Solar Campaign

It’s another example of utilities wielding their power rather than serving the public interest 

Photo Credits: James Pace via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Imagine a future powered completely with clean, renewable energy. Imagine everything about your daily routine, whether it’s turning on your coffee maker in the morning or driving to work in your electric car, powered by the solar panels on your roof and the batteries in your garage. 

This vision is achievable -- we have the technology and policies to power our homes and everyday lives with energy sources, namely the wind and sun, that don’t endanger our planet and our health. But we need to act quickly, with the impacts of our fossil fuel use -- from air pollution to the climate crisis -- getting more severe each day.

California has been leading the way toward this vision. In the fall of 2018, California became the second state, after Hawaii, to commit to transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Shortly after, the University of California system, one of the largest university systems in the country, set a goal of achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2025. Next, in December 2019, California celebrated a major milestone: one million solar roofs. And just this January, California became the first state in the country to begin building all new homes with solar panels on their roofs. 

Time and time again, California has set bold clean energy goals and then marched aggressively towards them. 

That’s why it’s especially disappointing that last week, the California Energy Commission (CEC) backtracked on a statewide policy that all new homes be built with solar panels. The rule was a part of a plan to overhaul the state’s building code and cut energy use in new buildings by 50 percent. 

Some cities have already adopted a solar homes policy, partly because it’s common sense. After all, the best time to add solar panels to a building is when the builders are already on the roof. But most importantly, it would make a real impact in combating climate change. A 2018 report published by Environment California Research & Policy Center found that the policy could increase the state’s existing solar capacity 22 percent by 2045, while also cutting carbon emissions equivalent to taking 115,000 cars off the road. 

In the course of considering the policy, the CEC also estimated that California homeowners would save $19,000 in energy and maintenance costs over the course of a typical 30-year mortgage -- double what solar panels would add to the cost of a home.

But instead of putting this win-win policy into action, the CEC approved a proposal from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to build a utility-scale solar farm rather than build new homes with solar panels. That decision undercuts the entire point of the law.

Solar panels, when coupled with batteries, would help ensure that a home could power itself even in the case of an electrical shutoff -- an increasingly common occurrence here in California. The proposal from SMUD to undermine the spread of rooftop solar is an example of utilities continuing to wield their power rather than serving the public interest. 

As a state facing a wide range of environmental problems -- from air pollution that threatens communities to wildfires that have ravaged the state -- we can’t afford to miss opportunities to transition to renewable energy. We need to move towards a future powered entirely by clean and renewable energy, and taking advantage of the sun’s plentiful energy shining on our rooftops will play a key role in that transition.

Putting solar panels on all new homes alone won’t transition the state to clean, renewable energy, but it is an important part of the transition. Instead of undercutting this important new policy, leaders in California should be looking to build off of the new solar homes rule by supporting policies such as adding solar panels and batteries to every school across the state, building community solar projects for apartment-dwellers and others without their own rooftop space, and developing offshore wind power and large-scale energy storage. 

Every new home built without solar panels is a missed opportunity to generate renewable energy. California should be taking advantage of every available surface to install solar panels so that we can reduce pollution and have healthier lives.