Columnist Johanna Neumann: Making new solar homes

  • Wright Builders has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/15/2020 3:04:54 PM
Modified: 1/15/2020 3:04:04 PM

This new decade presents us with many challenges worth solving. Making all new homes solar homes is worth including on our list of resolutions.

The time is right for this policy. Nearly half of American homeowners have seriously thought about putting solar panels on their home and almost nine out of 10 Americans favor expanding solar power. In these times when it can seem impossible for 55 percent of Americans to agree on anything, this consensus is noteworthy.

Requiring all new homes to have solar panels is a commonsense step that would create a wave of clean renewable energy, reduce global warming pollution, cut air pollution, save consumers money and help to create a more resilient electric grid for all.

Creating a wave of solar energy

Solar energy in the United States is already growing by leaps and bounds. In 2018, America produced over 40 times more energy from the sun than it did in 2009. We now capture enough solar energy to power more than 9 million average American homes.

But there’s a lot of room for growth. Solar made up merely 2.53 percent of America’s total electricity usage in 2018.

Models exist for how we can expand solar power. California, the fifth largest economy in the world, gets nearly 12 percent of its electricity from the sun, putting it far ahead of other states.

California has been ground zero for growing the solar industry for more than two decades. My very first environmental campaign, in 2001, was working alongside students at West Los Angeles Community College to convince their administration to set ambitious solar goals for their campus.

Five years later, California enacted the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which set a goal of installing 1 million solar energy systems on homes, schools, farms and businesses across the state. Perhaps more than any other single policy, this initiative propelled solar into the major leagues. The industry came to scale and costs plummeted. Nationwide the cost of a distributed photovoltaic system fell 71 percent from 2010 to 2018.

Last month California hit that historic 1 million solar installations milestone and it’s not letting up. Instead, California is ramping up its commitment to clean energy and instituting policies to get all its electricity from clean renewable sources by 2045. This year California started requiring that all new homes come with solar panels.

States light the way

Although Massachusetts has not yet joined the ranks of states committed to a 100 percent renewable energy future, momentum is building. And whether there’s an enacted goal or not, it still makes sense for the commonwealth to move the ball forward on commonsense legislation that will advance solar.

Two bills currently before state lawmakers would make sure we put solar panels on newly created rooftop space. Senate Bill 1957 would mandate rooftop solar panels on new residential and commercial buildings and Senate Bill 1995 would require solar panels on new or renovated state-owned buildings.

Putting solar panels on new homes in Massachusetts between 2020 and 2045 would double our existing solar capacity. Adding in commercial and government buildings would create even more opportunities.

These bills will help put solar where it makes sense when it makes sense — at the time of construction. If shading or positioning issues make solar unviable, or if property owners show they plan to generate an equivalent amount of power using a different renewable energy system, then the project can be exempted from the requirement.

One question that arises for many is whether a solar homes mandate will make the cost of purchasing a new home unattainable for low- and moderate-income families. The California Clean Energy Commission examined that very question and found that although the solar mandate would increase monthly mortgage payments by an average of $40, it would also lower monthly utility bills by $80, netting the family roughly $40 per month. In sum: A home with solar actually costs less to own than one without because the benefits of solar outweigh its costs.

Creating a new normal

The same way that any new home built today comes with a hot water heater and an HVAC system, new homes should also come with photovoltaic solar panels. If you agree, please contact your state senator and representative and ask them to support legislation that updates Massachusetts’ building regulations to require solar on new buildings.

 

Most homes built today will still be occupied in 50 years. Now is the time to resolve that from here on forward, new homes are also solar homes.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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