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  • Writer's picturePacific Sun Technologies

California isn’t requiring rooftop solar on every new home after all

Sacramento-area developers can take credit for energy produced at off-site solar farms instead of building homes with rooftop panels.

A crew installs solar panels on a Camarillo home. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

California officials voted Thursday to allow Sacramento-area developers to build homes that don't come equipped with solar panels — a move solar installers and environmentalists said would undermine the state's first-in-the-nation home solar requirement.

Under the proposal from Sacramento Municipal Utility District, a public power agency, home builders will be able to take credit for electricity generated by off-site solar farms, instead of constructing houses with rooftop solar panels. The utility plans to make enough off-site solar power available to serve all demand from new residential construction.

Supporters said the "community solar" program would accomplish California's goal of boosting clean energy, and reducing the carbon emissions fueling the climate crisis, without pushing up home prices in a state facing rising homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing.

Critics countered that the whole point of the rooftop solar mandate, approved in 2018, was to make clean energy a standard feature of new homes. They said the alternate compliance option approved Thursday would result in significantly lower electricity cost savings for homeowners and would lay the groundwork for other utilities to create similar workarounds.

The debate pitted home builders, utilities and organized labor against the solar industry and environmental advocacy groups. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) weighed in to support rooftop solar, but 31 other state lawmakers signed a letter urging approval of the Sacramento-area program. The letter cited the need to balance clean energy and affordable housing.

After initially postponing a decision in November, the commission sided with Sacramento Municipal Utility District, known as SMUD, in a unanimous vote on a revamped proposal.

"If it is true that it's a much better deal for consumers to have a panel on the roof, then those are the houses that will sell. And builders know that," Karen Douglas, one of five members of the Energy Commission, said before the vote. "Where it works, people are going to want the solar. And that's what we're going to overwhelmingly see."

Another commissioner, Janea Scott, said the Sacramento-area program "may not be perfect, but I don't think we should let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Commission officials acknowledged homeowners will see smaller bill savings under SMUD's Neighborhood SolarShares program than they would with solar panels on their roofs.