Countdown to 2020, part 1: The role solar plays in California’s new building efficiency standards

countdown to 2020

Installment 1:

New Builds, New You

Enter the Twilight Zone with me. Tomorrow, we wake up in a reality where solar energy is a standard component of all new homes built across the United States. Between that day and 2026, more solar energy capacity would be installed on just new homes than the entire U.S. currently has installed to this point. By 2045, solar installations on new homes alone would total 203 GW. Imagine the ripple effects.

OK, now wake up.

That’s not the world we live in, but the day feels much closer. Starting in 2020, that will be California’s reality thanks to the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. Here’s how the California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA) breaks down the opportunity for us:

“Each year there are roughly 120,000 residential solar installs (105,000 retrofit on existing homes and 15,000 on new homes). California averages 75,000 to 80,000 new homes built per year. So, this new rule will see an increase from 15,000 to 80,000 new solar homes (65,000) each year. If retrofit stays the same (roughly 105,000/year), that increases overall installations to 185,000 per year, or a 54 percent increase over the current 120,000 installs per year.

“If the average system size for a new solar home is 3.5 kW [a rough guess based on minimum system size of 2.5 kW], the additional 65,000 installations will result in an additional 225 MW. Compared to the total current market of customer-sited solar in California of approximately 1,100 MW, this is an increase of 20 percent.”

My guess is after the results of California’s experiment, like skateboarding and West Coast IPAs, this cool new trend will work its way across the country and get us closer to that Twilight Zone scenario. At last count 100 cities across the country have announced timelines to source 100 percent of their energy needs from renewable sources (Cincinnati being No. 100), with several already mulling their own version of California’s blueprint (places as off the solar radar as Milwaukee).

This is why we’re spending all of 2019 considering the impact of California’s new building standards in this year-long news series, Countdown to 2020. To kick things off, let’s do a deep dive into everything notable about the Building Energy Efficiency Standards as they are written.

Efficiency equation

The addition of the solar mandate grabbed the headlines, but systems won’t just be plopped onto homes that don’t make sense. The CEC’s 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards include PV as just one piece of an integrated, forward-thinking step toward a zero net metering world. Some key elements:

Flexibility. The mandate allows for homebuilders to offset some or all of the required solar PV capacity by providing access to community solar systems. Homes in this bucket are those with less than 80 contiguous sq ft of unshaded roof area due to shading from permanent structures.

Sensible sizing. A home’s solar system must be “appropriately sized” to generate the amount of electricity used by the home over the course of a year, based on the square footage of the home, the number of dwelling units and the climate zone. Tailoring system size in this way, and not overbuilding, is important for keeping system costs reasonable and curtailing the excess generation sent back to the grid.

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With solar panels being standard, homebuilders can then design homes and developments to maximize the energy a system can produce with roof angles or panels placed on multiple planes and directions to capture exposure during different times of the day. Closer partnerships between solar companies and homebuilders would help lessen design costs, for example, by encouraging the creation of standardized models of home energy systems. Solar installers could also take advantage of the opportunity to install panels on multiple homes at the same time to reduce labor, permitting and even supply chain costs. We will be diving into this area much more in future articles in this series.

Efficiency focus. Increasing energy efficiency is just as critical in this new world as the solar mandate. Consider that the average single-family home in the U.S. would need over 9 kW of solar panels to match its electricity usage when the average size of a residential solar system is around 7.4 kW. According to the “Solar Homes: The Next Step for Clean Energy” report, co-authored by the Environment America Research and Policy Center and the Frontier Group in December 2018, some states would even need 15 kW of solar just to meet their average home electricity consumption needs, which is just not practical.

Enter efficiency upgrades. That Solar Homes report notes that efficiency improvements saved 58 quadrillion btu of energy in 2014, almost 60 percent of total energy consumption that year. Further energy efficiency improvements could reduce electricity demand by another 40 to 60 percent by 2050.

The CEC also updated the thermal envelope standards that limit how much heat is transferred in and out of buildings (and the ventilation requirements for residential and nonresidential buildings to reduce indoor air pollution and efficient lighting requirements for nonresidential buildings). All of these solar + efficiency standards are projected to cut household energy use by 50 percent.

The benefits of solar are magnified further when builders and homeowners incorporate electric appliances during home construction. On average, heating and hot water systems consume 62 percent of the energy used in U.S. homes. This standard would encourage builders to ensure that a home’s main circuit breaker has the right ratings to accommodate PV systems and that the installed conduits from the inverters to the panels are placed so as to reduce losses from energy transmission.

Storage standard. All of the above will accomplish quite a bit just based on 2018 prices, but crucially the standards also encourage the adoption of residential energy storage systems by counting them toward the energy efficiency requirements. Batteries are still expensive, but coming down in price. Sven Lindström, CEO of Swedish solar energy technology company Midsummer, believes that the long-term profile of residential storage will have exactly the same curve and market shift as PV panels.

“From today’s ~$1,000/kWh, I think we will sooner than expected reach $100/kWh,” he says. “Quality from China will become good enough to dominate the market. This is great news for all consumers. With smart inverters and batteries, the grid could be seen as just a backup solution for most households.”

Add to that the passage of SB 700, which reauthorizes the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) for five years, extending rebates for consumers through 2025. CALSSA says this will add up to $800 million for storage and other emerging clean energy technologies, resulting in a total investment of $1.2 billion for customer-sited energy storage and “do for storage what the Million Solar Roof Initiative did” to drive the solar industry in the state. The current prediction is nearly 3 GW of energy storage systems at schools, farms, homes, nonprofits and businesses in California by 2026.

Add it up

Reading the California Energy Commission’s 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards together, a new vision of homeownership emerges, an acknowledgment that these parcels of private property are still very much tied into the collective of the community and must be operated and maintained as such by taking advantage of breakthroughs in technology.

Critics of these updates have a right to be worried about the additional costs added to home construction, especially considering the existing exorbitant home prices in California. But unlike gentrification, the cause for this price inflation (about $9,500) will improve community air quality, provide energy resilience and save homebuyers an average of $19,000 in energy and maintenance costs over 30 years. Even non-solar homeowners stand to benefit in this collective march to the future because, if planned for correctly, DG can lower rates for all utility customers. Consider that the average price of electricity bought from U.S. utilities rises by 2.2 percent each year, according to a report from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in September 2018. These new building standards would end the days of unpredictable swings in utility electricity costs.

The question we will look at next issue is where exactly today’s solar installers fit into this collective opportunity.

The Countdown to 2020 series is sponsored by QuickBolt

One Comment

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