California Town Makes a Bid to be "Solar Capital of the World" with New Law

April 17, 2013

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Every city wants to be known for something, even if it's just so they can put up a sign on the highway welcoming tourists to a unique corner of the globe.

Reno, Nev. decided a while back to call itself "the biggest little city in the world," and gained some renown that way. All across America, there are cities who trumpet famous people or mythical characters from their town (Brainerd, Minn., home of Paul Bunyan!) or places that offer strange or unusual landmarks or designations.

Five years ago, a trial lawyer named Rex Parris was elected mayor of Lancaster, Calif., a desert town in Los Angeles County of about 150,000 residents.

Parris is a Republican, but unlike many of his colleagues in the party, he's extremely concerned about global warming. In an interview with me he said more than once that climate change "was the biggest problem we face in America," and that the effects will be "cataclysmic" in the very near future.

Is global warming a threat? Absolutely, Parris told the New York Times recently. “I may be a Republican. I’m not an idiot.”

Wanting to do something "and tired of waiting for the federal government to act," Parris upon election set about trying to make Lancaster a center for solar and clean energy, and he has taken several steps to ensure that his city becomes greener.

Solar panels on the roof of  a stadium parking lot in Lancaster, Calif. The city just became the first in the U.S. to require solar panels on all new homes. Credit: NYTimes.com

Solar panels on the roof of a stadium parking lot in Lancaster, Calif. The city just became the first in the U.S. to require solar panels on all new homes. Credit: NYTimes.com

The mayor's stated goal of being the first U.S. city to produce more electricity from solar than it consumes on a daily basis means Lancaster’s rooftops, alfalfa fields, and parking lots must be covered with solar panels to generate a total of 126 MW of solar power above the 39 MW already being generated, and the 50 MW under construction.

Lancaster's City Hall and two other big buildings in town (a performing arts center and a baseball stadium) now generate 1.5 MW.  Additionally, solar arrays on churches, medical offices and other area businesses provide an additional 4 MW.

But two months ago, Parris and the city leaders in Lancaster took their desire for solar power in town to a new level: They proposed an ordinance, that passed two weeks ago, requiring all new single-family homes in town either come equipped rooftop solar panels, or be in subdivisions that already produce 1 kW of energy per home.

According to the new law, all newly-built single-family homes within Lancaster will be required to feature solar power systems starting on Jan. 1, 2014.

The new requirements “will be written into Lancaster’s ‘Residential Zones Update’ on residential solar,” Greentech Media reports. In addition to a variety of new requirements having to do with energy efficiency and green building practices, new single-family homes will have to meet minimum solar energy system requirements.

"We had the potential to do this and we had the support of the community and the business leaders in town," Parris told me, "and so there was no reason not to do this. We had a little bit of pushback from some builders, because obviously putting solar panels on houses increase the (building) cost, but other than that, everyone was very supportive."

Specifically, residential homes on lots larger than 7,000 sq ft in Lancaster will need to possess a system of 1.0 kW to 1.5 kW, the new law states. And residential homes in rural areas of up to 100,000 sq ft need to possess a system of at least 1.5 kW.

As novel of an idea as this is, and as progressive environmentally as Lancaster seems to be, there are quite a few questions raised by unilaterally requiring all homes to have solar panels.

For one thing, is this legal? Parris said it is, comparing having solar panels on the roof to any other requirement municipalities put on homes. "In any city you're required to have a certain kind of roof, a certain kind of garage door, a certain kind of all kinds of structural elements," Parris said. "This is no different."

Then there's the question of how Lancaster's law would affect solar manufacturers. It's not much of a stretch to see that if other cities decide to make similar requirements on new homes, the costs of solar panels might be artificially inflated, causing homeowners to have to spend even more money on homes.

In talking to several solar panel manufacturers and/or distributors in California, though, there doesn't seem to be much concern about that.

Alan Lee, the CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based EcoSolargy, said he didn't think there'd be much price inflation.

"I think many solar companies, first of all, are not doing this just for the profit and the money, they want to offer solar at an affordable price," Lee said. "This is a basic supply and demand issue, yes; but if only a few cities and a few states at a time adapt laws like Lancaster has, it will drive up demand, but I really don't think it will be significant enough to have an impact on the market as a whole."

Joe Morrissey, the vice-president of sales for Sacramento-based Atlantis Energy Systems, said that one complicating factor for Lancaster and others is the positioning of new homes.

"Not all new homes face south toward the sun, so if you're dealing with a city requiring solar panels on all new homes, it could be difficult for builders to manage that, and that obviously affects our business, too," Morrissey said. "It's certainly encouraging that people are thinking of where their energy is coming from, and when you buy a house is a good time to make that decision, but there are some complicating factors."

Morrissey also felt that the price of solar panels wouldn't spike too high of other cities followed Lancaster's model.

"I think prices will be inflated if it's an unusual model of solar panel that is required in new homes, but if the homes are using normal solar panels, I don't think the prices will go up that much."

Erica Johnson, the director of community relations for Sullivan Power Inc., based in San Diego, said that another reason prices wouldn't be affected artificially is that the solar energy produced by individual homes isn't that much on a grand scale, and many solar companies are focused on much bigger projects.

"A 1,000 watt system like what we're talking about in Lancaster is only like six solar panels," Johnson said. "The average system size is about 4,500 watts in California, so I don't think prices are going to be affected all that much."

The lifetime costs of a large solar facility are expected to be about 15 percent more than electricity bought from the state’s grid, and those projected costs are now roughly half of what they were five years ago, state figures show.

Mayor Parris and the other solar manufacturers said that they do expect other cities to begin following Lancaster's lead, and make these requirements for new homes.

"It's easy to sit back and do nothing if you're a politician; that's how you keep getting re-elected," Parris said. "But if there are enough forward-thinking leaders who see what a destructive effect global warming is having on our planet, and how solar panels are one way to help in the future, I think there will be a lot of other places that do what we're doing."

 

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