CA’s Solar and Natural Gas Ban Mandates Now in Effect: What You Need to Know

If you are building a California home this year, it will have to produce more clean energy — and in some places use more electric appliances — than ever before. A first-in-the-nation law requiring new homes to have rooftop solar panels took effect Jan. 1. State building codes also require better insulation and air filtration for new homes, and homeowners get additional incentives to install batteries to store solar power.

Another major new policy, taking effect in a handful of jurisdictions, involves reducing natural gas use: In the Bay Area, if you’re building a new home in Berkeley, San Mateo, Menlo Park, San Jose or Marin County, you either won’t be able to install gas appliances, or you will have to make your home more energy efficient if you do. Similar laws in 14 other Bay Area cities await California Energy Commission approval. If you’re building a house in the new year, here are answers to common questions:

Q: What is the new home solar requirement?
A: Updated state building efficiency standards require all low-rise single-family and multifamily buildings to have a rooftop solar system whose size varies depending on projected electrical usage. Your house is exempt if it has less than 80 continuous square feet of rooftop space unshaded by trees, hills, and adjacent structures. Some people living in the desert, and those with two- or three-floor homes, need not have quite as big a system. If you have batteries to store the solar power, the system can be 25% smaller.

Q: How much will the solar requirement cost?
A: The California Energy Commission estimates that the solar mandate, along with other building code changes, will add $9,500 per home in construction costs, but save homeowners $19,000 in energy and maintenance costs over 30 years. A commission study projected that the cost passed along to the home buyer would be marginal — in other words, developers will largely absorb the added cost.
The California Building Industry Association, which represents about 3,000 companies that build 84% of the state’s homes, estimated that the changes will add $8,000 to $13,500 to the price of home construction depending on location. The building association predicts that the cost will be passed along to home buyers and some may find themselves priced out of the market.
“When you go to the bank, they don’t provide you a loan based on how much you’re going to pay for utility bills,” said Andrew Kosydar, legislative advocate with the association.

Q: What cities are banning natural gas in buildings?
A: The toughest bans are in Berkeley and San Jose, which prohibit gas appliances in new single-family homes and residential buildings up to three stories. In San Jose, new low-rise hotels, high-rise multifamily buildings and nonresidential buildings that use gas must have energy efficiency that exceeds state standards. Berkeley plans to expand its rules to include commercial buildings. Menlo Park and Marin County have enacted restrictions on natural gas but allow gas stoves. San Mateo doesn’t impose an outright ban on gas appliances, but sets a higher energy-efficiency standard for buildings that use them. Restaurants and multifamily residential buildings are exempted.

Other laws banning natural gas or encouraging going electric were passed in Alameda, Brisbane, Cupertino, Healdsburg, Los Gatos, Mill Valley, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Pacifica, Palo Alto, Saratoga, Santa Rosa and Windsor. They’re waiting for approval from the California Energy Commission. The policies are controversial: The California Restaurant Association and some developers have sued municipalities over the gas bans, arguing they will add costs.

For Further Reading:
Resources for further research into ideas presented in this article include:
• Article, S.F. Chronicle: https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/California-s-latest-pollution-push-Banning-14951305.php
• Article, U.S.A. Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/11/10/climate-change-solutions-more-cities-banning-natural-gas-homes/4008346002/
• Article, National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/21/781874235/california-restaurant-industry-group-sues-berkeley-over-natural-gas-ban

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