California solar capital could require rooftop arrays

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Japan rooftop solarIf the Lancaster, Calif. City Council approves a proposed new building code next week, it will be the first city in the country to require solar panels on all newly constructed homes.

The new zoning code would require at least 1 kilowatt of solar on the roofs of all new homes in the Los Angeles suburb.

“It is a mandate for solar,” said Jason Caudle, deputy city manager for Lancaster.

The mandate is just the next step down a path toward becoming a net-zero community. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris proposed a few years ago that the city strive for that goal.

Outsiders scoffed and there was commentary printed in the L.A. Times suggesting the conservative town and its republican mayor were unlikely to achieve the lofty goal.

But in a short period, the city has risen as the solar leader in California.

“We’ve had some successes,” Caudle said.

With more than 16 megawatts of installed capacity, the city ranks third in the state for solar behind San Jose and San Diego. However, when it comes to per capita installation, the city has more than 130 kilowatts of solar for each of its 153,000 residents, which is more than double the per capita solar in San Jose and San Diego combined.

Lancaster partnered with SolarCity in 2010, streamlined its permitting process, and promoted solar to residents.

“That netted us a significant number of households that turned on solar,” Caudle said.

The city itself erected solar-clad parking structures and installed panels on all of its public buildings. And now 90 percent of the city’s energy use comes from solar generation.

The city also created a unique financing model that helped 26 of the public schools within its boundaries go solar. That’s a model Caudle said the city is working on expanding to other California communities.

“It really all started with the mayor’s vision,” Caudle said.

The mayor first presented his vision in a State of the City speech.

“He had a map of the Middle East and where all the oil reserves were,” Caudle said. “And he said it would probably make sense for people who lived there to be drilling for oil. Then he showed an insulation map of the United States.”

With abundant sunshine in Lancaster, Parris told the people they should be mining that resource locally.

Last year, the city developed its own utility authority in order to take more control of its energy consumption, transmission and generation.

“The Mayor set out a plan for us to become the first net-zero city in the world,” Caudle said. “And if we want to achieve that goal, we can’t continue to build non-net-zero homes.”

That’s why the new building code will require solar. That 1-kilowatt requirement won’t make homes net-zero, but the idea is that it will push developers to work harder to integrate renewable energy generation and energy conservation into their design.