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California's solar mandate is sparking a new energy debate

Solar panels on a home
Photo: Killan O'Sullivan/View Pictures via Getty Images

Following up: California's mandate that new single-family homes and small multi-family dwellings must come with solar panels starting in 2020 has touched off a dispute among climate advocates about whether it's a good idea.

Why it matters now: State and local policy is where the action is, as the White House has generally abandoned federal climate policies. Meanwhile, California's initiatives could bolster similar efforts in other states as solar continues to get ever cheaper, which expands the menu of policy options.

The sides, albeit oversimplified:

  1. One side argues that it's a feel-good but not cost-effective policy, and could even crowd out better climate initiatives.
  2. Others say there isn't the luxury of leaving pr0-deployment policies on the cutting room floor, and that costs declines will make it cheaper than expected.

Be smart: Rochester Institute of Technology energy expert Eric Hittinger's excellent Twitter thread offers helpful framing. He writes:

  • "One group, maybe called 'optimizers', wants cost-effective solutions because anything else results in more costs and less results."
  • "Another group, maybe called 'pragmatic gradualists', are more focused on making progress, and are happy to push on anything that seems to move. This group is less focused on cost-effectiveness and more on political feasibility."
  • His bottom line: "Our *goal* should be to achieve the most cost-effective and efficient solutions that we know about, but we should also be *satisfied* if we achieved the best solution that was politically feasible today. Then tomorrow we can start working on a better policy."

One level deeper: The mandate, part of a wider efficiency policy, is expected to raise average new home costs by around $8,000–$12,000, per various reports.

  • The California Energy Commission predicts that the new policy will add $40 to monthly mortgage payments, but save $80 per month on cooling, heating and lighting.
  • NPR has a good piece here.