CALIFORNIA

Republican mayor pushes climate action, wants solar on new homes

A Republican mayor in Southern California who sees climate change as an urgent threat wants to mandate solar on new homes.

Mayor R. Rex Parris of Lancaster, Calif., pushed for the requirement -- believed to be the first of its kind in the nation -- because "there isn't any greater crisis facing the world today" than global warming.

"We really are facing a species extinction potential because of global warming," Parris said. "We're going to see the displacement of millions and millions of people. Whether we can survive the wars that that's going to cause is an open question."

Parris pitched the idea of a solar standard for the city of 158,000 people located in northeast Los Angeles County.

Lancaster's other leaders for the most part agree, he said. The City Council is expected to vote as early as Tuesday, and the mayor says he has the votes needed to pass it. If approved, the law would take effect for any home built after Jan. 1, 2014.

There has been legislation requiring that new homes come ready for solar installation, but none so far has mandated inclusion, said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. The idea of residences built with solar, however, "is moving very much into the mainstream," he said.

Lancaster's vote takes place as California pursues some of the county's most aggressive renewable energy requirements. The state has mandated that by 2020, utilities generate one-third of all electricity from green sources. By that same year, it wants to shrink its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

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The solar standard for homes is among a series of green moves by Lancaster. City leaders see expanded solar use as both an environmental need and a way to create jobs in a place with high unemployment.

Located at 2,350 feet above sea level, with wide open spaces and a sunny climate, Lancaster is ideal for photovoltaics, Parris said.

A rebel within his party

Since his election in 2008, Parris has sought to make Lancaster "the solar capital of the world" and a net zero energy user. The city has about 1 gigawatt of renewable energy, enough to supply about 200,000 homes.

The mayor, 61, who worked as a lawyer before he ran for office, said that if climate change is "going to be solved, it's going to be solved in the neighborhoods. It's not going to be solved internationally. What I'm hoping to do is develop a city that can serve as a model."

Some in the GOP still deny climate change, which needs to change, the mayor said. Others debate whether it's man-made or caused by natural weather variations, but that argument is irrelevant, he asserted.

"What does it matter if there is something you can do about it? And it seems as if there is something we can do," Parris said.

Lancaster is a "very conservative" place politically, Parris said, but he has become more popular with measures like the one on solar. National polls show that "the upper 70 percent of voting Republicans are in favor of doing something about global warming," Parris said, "but leadership is not."

Parris rejects the idea that his ideas on climate fit better with Democratic policies.

"Science is science, and what we have to do is develop leaders in both parties who are willing to not be at war with science," Parris said. "To say that global warming is a Democratic issue is as bad as saying global warming doesn't exist."

Some fear mandate

Outside the City Council, support for Parris' solar measure varies.

Browning of Vote Solar called it "enormously helpful" to meeting the state's emissions goals and to consumers. "The ability to buy a new house that comes with the next 20 years of power bills already taken care of, that is a huge piece of the puzzle in terms of planning our infrastructure investments around a future that is principally powered by renewable energy," he said.

But there are potential drawbacks to Lancaster's proposal, said Matt Brost, national sales director with SunPower Corp., a San Jose-based solar system maker that works with homebuilders.

"A mandate can drive homebuilders to the lowest-cost, cheapest solution and maybe not what's always in the best interest of the customer," Brost said. "We need to be very careful.

"Builders generally are adamantly opposed to being required to do certain things because it makes them not competitive with their biggest competitor, which is the resale market," Brost added.

Parris vowed that the city will "keep fine-tuning [the policy] until it works, but you have to take the first step first."

Lancaster's new standard would not mandate solar panels on every home within a new subdivision. Instead, it would require builders to meet a minimum amount of kilowatts of solar power per home, based on size. For each residence on a 7,000-square-foot lot, for example, 1.4 kilowatts of photovoltaics would be needed.

In a development with 10 homes, that mandate could be met by putting larger systems on two homes or smaller ones on more residences.

Parris, who has solar on his own home, said it was similar to any other requirement the city is making on residential construction. "What's the big deal?" he asked.

Solar advances across the state

Lancaster is not alone in seeing growth in homes with solar. Parris promoted the city's proposal last week at an event where KB Home unveiled the 1,000th Southern California residence with solar power.

KB Home in conjunction with SunPower now adds solar to most single-family houses in Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said Craig LeMessurier, KB Home's spokesman.

When the company started the practice in 2011, he said, buyers were hesitant. But they typically come into sales offices now wanting solar because of long-term savings on electricity bills, he said.

"It's a huge trend now," LeMessurier said. The solar that KB Home adds to roofs saves residents 20 to 80 percent on their power costs, he explained.

KB Home is just one of about 25 developers adding solar to new homes, SunPower's Brost said. The practice has grown significantly in the past two years, he added.

In California, he said, 15 to 20 percent of new homes built by large developers now include solar. The state has a program that gives residential builders rebates for adding solar. Those awards are funded by charges added to bills of the state's electricity users.

City wants a piece of the action

Parris has more plans for solar in Lancaster after the vote on the home solar ordinance. The city has been bargaining to secure a small percentage of the energy produced by large-scale solar projects and plans to resell it at a profit, he said. Lancaster has started a power authority for that purpose, and the mayor hopes to use the proceeds in a few years to lower taxes.

Lancaster has developed a financing model to fund solar energy systems, combining private investment with money from tax-exempt bonds that the city sells, said Heather Swan, city project coordinator.

That's typically lower-cost than power purchase agreements, in which developers sign lengthy contracts to sell electricity to utilities, Swan said. It's one incentive offered to developers, along with help in clearing the permitting process and partnering to get higher state rebates.

Lancaster also is working to acquire a new transmission line. There currently is more demand to put new power on the system than there is space to add that power, Swan said.

The city, along with Pittsburg, Calif., has asked the state's grid manager for permission to build a $1 billion line that would span about 50 miles and carry 2 gigawatts of power. It would be built on the east side of Lancaster.

Lancaster hopes to have that line finished before the end of 2016, Swan said, so that solar projects that are under construction now would be able to connect to the grid and take advantage of federal tax incentives.

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