LOS ANGELES – The California regulators voted on Wednesday to oblige building owners to install solar power and battery storage in many new commercial and high-rise residential projects. It is the latest initiative in the state’s energetic efforts to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources.
The five-member California Energy Commission unanimously approved the proposal. It is now being taken up by the state building standards commission, which is expected to include it in a general revision of the building regulations in December.
The energy plan, which is due to come into effect on January 1, 2023, also provides for new houses to be wired in such a way that the switch from natural gas heating and appliances to electrical sources is facilitated and even encouraged.
“The future we are trying to build together is a future beyond fossil fuels,” said David Hochschild, chairman of the energy commission, before the agency’s vote. “Big changes require everyone to play a role. We all have a role in building that future. “
Commercial buildings that would be affected by the plan include hotels, offices, medical practices and clinics, retail and grocery stores, restaurants, schools and public spaces such as theaters, lecture halls and convention centers.
The provisions would supplement the requirements that came into force last year, which provide for new single and multi-family houses to be equipped with solar power up to three floors.
According to the commission, homes and businesses use nearly 70 percent of California’s electricity and are responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. The proposals adopted on Wednesday would reduce emissions over a 30-year period to the extent that it would take nearly 2.2 million cars off the road for a year.
Construction costs are expected to increase only minimally, said the Energy Commission. Adding solar power and storage during construction is considered more cost effective than retrofitting.
Lindsay Buckley, a spokeswoman for the energy commission, said while there was no guarantee that the Building Standards Commission would pass the plan, she never turned down such a proposal once it was approved by the energy panel.
Many California cities have building codes restricting or banning natural gas from new homes – 49 parishes total, according to the Sierra Club – but the changes advanced Wednesday would significantly extend the move away from fossil fuels.
Along with consumer and environmental groups, representatives from electricity companies such as Edison, one of the state’s state-owned utilities, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District spoke out in favor of the changes.
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Aug. 11, 2021, 5:03 p.m. ET
The commission heard some opposition while the plan was being drafted, particularly from Southern California Gas, which supplies much of the natural gas to residential, commercial and industrial customers in Southern California, Hochschild said.
The California Building Industry Association took a neutral position, although some utility union members warned against a ban on natural gas, arguing that doing so could increase customer bills and hurt jobs.
“Instead of a ruthless push to electrify buildings, has the Commission considered advocating an equipment replacement program?” Carlos Portillo, a member of the Utility Workers Union of America, wrote to the panel.
The head of the organization that represents the state’s solar and battery companies said that while she felt the code needs to be changed, the guidelines reviewed by other state regulators could undermine the benefits.
Official Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, said that while utilities praised the commission’s plan, they proposed reducing the benefits homeowners and businesses get on the excess electricity they produce and feed it into the grid.
Rooftop solar owners are being compensated for the retail cost of electricity, an agreement utility companies argue they are unfair to those without such systems. The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees investor-owned utilities, is considering changing the agreement known as net energy metering on future solar systems.
A significant change could reduce or eliminate the savings that solar power and storage can offer home and business customers. “Net metering is the only opportunity for the little guy to get relief and they want to get to the heart of it,” said Ms. Del Chiaro.
Californians felt an urgency to move away from fossil fuel use as climate change brought extreme weather conditions that contributed to some of the state’s most devastating forest fires. In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, solar energy is also used as a means of dealing with power outages.
Investor-owned utility companies have turned off the electricity for up to a week to prevent electrical appliances from starting a fire. Consumers are therefore increasingly looking for solar collectors and battery storage systems as secondary energy sources.
During Wednesday’s public comments to the Energy Commission, speakers urged regulators to help keep the state’s residents safe in the face of all the devastation.
“We can hear the passion and just the urgency and emotion that goes beyond people’s motivation,” said Commissioner Andrew McAllister. “California is being forced to lead more than ever.”
The last major change to the energy regulations of the state building regulations – the requirement to equip new single-family houses with solar power – was decided in 2018. The regulations came into force on January 1st, 2020. The effects to date have been limited, as builders who already had a permit could work according to previous standards and the coronavirus pandemic hampered work and the issuing of permits.
The primary focus, according to McAllister, should be realizing the important role that building code changes can play in reducing emissions. “This is a huge lever that California needs to pull to get market attention,” he said.