‘Zero Progress’ in California

Published on June 19, 2018

Luminalt solar installation - Getty Images

Luminalt solar installation on San Francisco home (Getty Images)

Ha! Got you, didn’t I?!

The real story is about the progress we’re making toward zero carbon. A couple of recent milestones are adoption by the California Energy Commission (CEC) of the State’s building energy standards, Title 24-2019, effective January 1, 2020, and CA Senate passage of SB 1477 (Stern, Low-Emissions Buildings Market Development); the bill is now making its way through the State Assembly.

Title 24

While much has been published about the landmark solar mandate in Title 24-2019 — the first time a state has required installation of photovoltaics (PVs) on residential projects — mainstream media outlets have largely overlooked the significance of this code update as a step on the journey, set in motion in 2006, towards the State’s “big, bold” zero net energy (ZNE) goals. Requiring PVs doesn’t achieve ZNE, as the arrays are only required to offset ‘typical electric uses’ — i.e., excluding the typical (and not inconsequential) gas loads of space and water heating, cooking, and clothes drying. However, it’s a step in the right direction. Of particular note is that this version of Title 24, like all its predecessors, was required to meet stringent rules ensuring cost-effectiveness — that is, the standards must save consumers more than they cost. While many who work in this field (myself included) believe the cost-effectiveness test needs to be updated to encompass societal costs associated with fossil fuel combustion, the current rules do ensure that the solar mandate will not pose a financial hardship to new home buyers (notwithstanding propaganda to the contrary by nay-sayers).

In today’s San Diego Union-Tribune, CEC’s Commissioner Andrew McAllister provides a good overview of the requirements. “From day one, the savings from lower electricity bills more than offset any additional payment associated with financing through a mortgage. Costs will be even lower by 2020, especially in large developments where solar equipment will be procured and installed in bulk. The standards also allow larger, community-scale solar instead of individual rooftop systems — another potential cost-reducer. And exemptions to the solar requirement apply for shaded sites and infeasible roof configurations, and where local power is uncommonly inexpensive.” McAllister goes on to remark that the new standards also “encourage grid-friendly technologies such as battery storage, thermal storage and demand response to be installed alongside solar. The standards also make it easier to build an all-electric home — a clean, low-carbon trend that is expected to grow.” Furthermore, as an alternative to purchasing PVs outright, home buyers will have the option of leasing a PV system at very low or no up-front cost.

While it’s somewhat doubtful if California will ever truly mandate ZNE on individual residences — for perfectly good reasons, including the emergence of potentially more cost-effective alternatives such as the community solar approach that McAllister cites — the State is forging ahead on the path to zero carbon, which is, after all, the real goal; ZNE was simply conceived as a means to that end.

SB 1477

SB 1477 is described in a support letter submitted to Senator Stern on June 13 as providing, “technology-neutral incentives directly to builders and developers to design and build low-emissions buildings, and [spurring] innovation in the market for space and water heating equipment in California … This bill also targets incentives to Californians who need and deserve the most support. Higher incentives will go to low income housing and buildings in disadvantaged communities. In addition, space and water heating equipment that are most likely to improve the health, safety, and energy affordability of low-income households will be prioritized.”

The letter, signed by Design AVEnues and nearly 40 other organizations, was drafted by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been leading the lobbying efforts on this important climate change bill. NRDC’s Pierre Delforge reports, “Following amendments in the Senate, the bill now proposes that the market development programs be funded from an annual allocation of 5 percent of the cap and trade allowance revenues received by electric and gas utilities. SB 1477’s incentive programs are well aligned with the purpose of the cap and trade allowance revenue to fund GHG reduction programs, and using this funding source would avoid any impact on rates.” The bill will be heard by the Assembly Utilities Committee on June 27, and support letters are due by June 21. The draft bill can be reviewed and comments can be submitted on the State’s website (here).


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