As It Happens

Why California is requiring all new homes to have solar panels after 2020

Jumping out ahead of the rest of the country, California on Wednesday moved to require solar panels on all new homes and low-rise apartment buildings starting in 2020.

'We know actually that climate change is real, and we know that our population wants us to deal with it'

Luminalt solar installers Pam Quan moves a solar panel during an installation on the roof of a home in San Francisco on Wednesday. The California Energy Commission has approved legislation that requires all new homes in the state of California to have solar panels. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sunny California will require solar panels on all new homes and low-rise apartment buildings starting in 2020.

The new building standard — unanimously approved by the five-member California Energy Commission — would be the first such statewide mandate in the U.S. 

Andrew McAllister is one of those members. He told As It Happens host Carol Off why America's most populous state is taking this step. 

Here is part of that conversation. 

What made you think this was the right time to make home solar panels mandatory for new house construction in California?

California has been doing solar energy for decades and finding different ways to support that industry and develop that market.

We are at a moment where costs have come down tremendously. It's a mature industry. Builders have gotten used to putting solar on a large percentage of their new constructions already, and local governments are increasingly mandating solar energy themselves.

Does this mean these houses will be off-grid?

No, it does not mean they will be off-grid.

Buildings actually can play a great role in keeping our grid resilient and reliable. And solar distributed around within the grid is one way to do that.

A solar panel is installed on the roof of the Old Governor's Mansion State Historic Park in Sacramento, Calif., in 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

OK, so how does it work then? 

These systems are interconnected behind the meter on the customer premise. And largely what they do is offset the consumption that happens at that premise.

The panels on the roof will be generating energy and it will be going into the grid.

To the extent that there is activity on site that's using energy, that's called self-consumption. The energy from the PV system, from the photovoltaic system, will be used on site.

If there's not much load on site, then that energy can get pushed out onto the grid and help provide services to everyone else.

Are you actually anticipating being able to generate electricity for other uses in California from people's home systems?

If there's not load on site, then the energy goes out onto the grid and passes the other way through the meter. That's just the natural order of things.

The new mandate is estimated to cost approximately $10,000 US per home. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

How much more expensive will these houses be?

From the homeowner's point of view, buying one of these homes actually will be a cash-flow positive from day one, right out of the gate, relative to a non-solar house. 

The reason I can say that is any increment in the mortgage payment ... will be more than offset by the savings on the energy bill.

The construction cost will go up by, we estimate, on average about $10,000.

Why can't people choose to do this voluntarily?

Many people do already choose to do this voluntarily and that's how we know there's a mature market.

As state officials, we have the obligation to balance the public good with private benefits, and I think here there's a very clear public benefit to reducing greenhouse gases and cleaning up our air.

The people who buy a new house in California will pay maybe as much as $10,000 more for it because of the solar system, or they can go out and buy a system if they already have a house.

What does that mean for people who can't afford that? I mean, do they end up being the people who subsidize the rest of the system?

The price of a house is not necessarily driven primarily, or even that much, by the cost of building that house.

In California, we do have an expensive housing stock. That is true. But the drivers of that home price are largely location and land cost and other factors that are really market driven.

In terms of just access to solar, we have a number of programs that focus on disadvantaged communities and low-income populations to help them avail themselves of the clean energy economy.

You mentioned the solar cells are getting cheaper and that's why this can be viable. Here, one of the reasons for that is because a great deal of solar panels and solar systems are coming out of China ... and locally produced stuff is is more expensive. Is that the same issue there?

That's already the case. I mean, we live in a global economy and Chinese modules do tend to be the cheapest.

Most of the economic resilience or the economic benefit of the growing solar sector is about the installation jobs associated with it.

These are good local jobs. They cannot be exported because you have to be at the premise.

I know the big reason you're doing this in California is because you're combating climate change. It's part of your policy to switch to non-carbon sources.

But do you feel in California that you're swimming against the tide in the U.S.? I mean, your president, Donald Trump, has repeatedly denied the existence of it.

We know actually that climate change is real, and we know that our population wants us to deal with it.

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