Editorial: California, don’t back down from your own rules requiring solar panels on new homes

Solar panels on new houses
Solar panels have been installed on the roofs of some of the newly built homes.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

So much for California’s groundbreaking policy of requiring solar panels on newly constructed homes. The mandate hasn’t even taken effect yet and utilities are already concocting loopholes that would let developers skip the rooftop solar panels in favor of green power from far-off solar farms.

Last year, the California Energy Commission approved a first-in-the-nation building standard that required solar panels on newly constructed homes and low-rise apartment buildings. It was a simple, smart policy designed to help wean residents off fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This week, however, the commission considered a proposal from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District that would allow developers to avoid installing rooftop solar systems on new homes, and instead meet the requirements using green power from far-off solar farms. Commissioners rightly postponed their decision in the face of environmentalists’ protests.

To be sure, it makes sense to give developers some flexibility, particularly in cases where a building’s roof can’t accommodate enough solar panels or the area is too shady. And there’s real value in the development of local “community solar” projects that can provide backup power to homes cut off from the larger grid by an outage. That’s why the rooftop solar policy, which takes effect next year, offers builders and utilities the option of developing “community-shared solar options,” which includes off-site solar installations.


But the community solar option was so broadly written that it allows developers to rely exclusively on distant solar farms that are already built or in the construction pipeline. That would effectively gut the mandate to greatly increase the number of solar-powered homes; as a consequence, environmentalists say, less solar power would be generated. One commissioner warned that, under the Sacramento utility district proposal, it’s possible that every new home in the Sacramento area could be built without solar panels.

Such a move would deprive Californians of the benefits of having more homes powered locally by solar panels. Photovoltaics harness the sun to create electricity, reducing the need for dirtier forms of energy. Rooftop solar reduces the need for utility investments in the power grid. And residents generate their own power, cutting their utility bills.

The mandate makes even more sense now that California utilities have begun turning off electricity to millions of consumers to avoid having downed power lines spark more devastating and deadly wildfires. It’s going to take years, maybe decades, to make utility lines safer. In the meantime, rooftop solar panels together with battery storage systems can keep the lights on during the blackouts.

By all means, Sacramento’s utility and others should continue to invest in solar farms and industrial-scale solar installations that can deliver lots of cheap green power from a great remove via transmission lines. But the need for decarbonizing the state is so great and the work is so daunting, that commission can’t afford to weaken its own solar mandate.