When Mike Rain and his wife purchased their new house from Tri Pointe Homes at Bloom at Green Valley in Fairfield, Calif., in April 2020, they went from paying $50 to $80 per month for electricity at their previous home to paying nothing for a year. That’s because their new house came with a mandatory array of solar panels on the roof.
“Our only choice was whether we wanted a system that generated three, four or five kilowatts of electricity,” Rain says. “We’re empty-nesters with a 2,400-square-foot house, so we went with the smallest and less-expensive option. Our bills were always low in our old house because we lived in an area with mild weather and didn’t use air conditioning.”
Solar power seems like a natural fit in California, known for its sunny skies and liberal policies on environmental issues. In 2020, California became the first state to mandate that all newly built homes, with a few exceptions, must include a rooftop solar system.
Several factors came together in California that made a mandate unsurprising, says Kevin Wilson, national vice president of strategic sourcing and sustainability for Tri Pointe Homes in Los Angeles.
“The biggest factor is the extreme decline in the cost of installing a solar panel system,” Wilson says. “At the same time, the cost of electricity is extremely high in California. Those two factors coupled to accelerate homeowner interest in solar panels. In addition, as they become more common, there’s less pushback on how it looks. That’s a nonissue now, but in the past some homeowners only wanted them in the back of the house where they couldn’t be seen.”
Wilson says architects in California are now designing homes to be aesthetically pleasing while easily accommodating solar panels.
Whether the rest of the country will follow California’s lead remains to be seen.
“California has always been a leader in green building,” says Elizabeth Beardsley, senior policy counsel with the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington. “This mandate normalizes the idea of solar power as acceptable to regular homeowners, but it will be a long time before mandates are considered by other states except for the most progressive ones.”
Some larger national builders that add solar power to their California properties may see the market advantage of offering solar panels and bring it to other states, Beardsley says. Many states offer incentives to consumers and to third-party companies to subsidize the initial cost of installing solar panels.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency provides updated information for consumers about tax credits and rebates for solar power systems. The federal residential solar energy tax credit allows homeowners to claim 26 percent of the cost of installing a solar panel system in 2020 and 22 percent for systems installed in 2021. Extended renewable energy tax credits have been included in the $1.4 trillion federal spending package alongside a $900 billion pandemic relief spending bill.
D.C. set a goal to have 10 percent of its electricity provided by solar energy by 2041. Approximately 1 percent of electricity in D.C. is supplied by solar panels, says Tommy Wells, director of the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) in the District.
“We’re the most generous jurisdiction in the country for providing incentives for solar energy,” Wells says. “If you have a roof and sun and don’t have solar panels, you’re turning down money.”
In D.C., consumers can receive up to $500 per megawatt of electricity generated by solar power through the Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC) program, according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Nearby in Maryland, SRECs are capped at $50 per megawatt, and Virginia has yet to implement SRECs.
“Over a 20-year period, a six-kilowatt solar panel system can generate $25,000 in electricity,” Wells says. “Then you add to that the lower costs on your electric bills and the federal income tax credit for solar panels and that’s a serious financial incentive for homeowners.”
The number of people who requested permits to install solar panels rose 71 percent last year in D.C. compared with 2019, Wells says. The city’s “Solar for All” program, which was signed into law in 2016, pays for solar panel installation for low-income households who make 80 percent or less of area-median income, which is $100,800 for a family of four.
“One issue we had that slowed adoption of solar panels in the city was that the Historic Preservation Review Board could deny panels for homes in a historic district, but we worked with them so that now solar panels are allowed,” Wells says. “Homeowners just need to try to cover the solar panels a little with something that looks like their roof.”
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