City Council Discusses Rooftop Solar Requirement Proposal

BY GABE HENRY WOODY staff writer

The Berkeley City Council is currently deciding whether the city should create a rooftop solar requirement to meet the City of Berkeley’s energy goals.

This requirement would follow in the footsteps of six other California cities, including San Francisco and other local, Bay Area cities. Berkeley aims to look into the viability of a rooftop solar requirement for new buildings in the city.

The Berkeley City Council will vote on whether the Berkeley Energy Commission should determine similar rooftop requirements for the city. Some believe, if passed, this would be a significant step towards meeting the goal of “obtaining fifty percent of our energy needs from solar power by 2030” as outlined in the Berkeley City Council Resolution. Others think that this proposed resolution would provide a concrete solution for the council’s April, 2015 decision, and set an example for cities around the country to continue pushing rooftop solar requirements.

Since as early as 2013, California Energy Regulations have stipulated a mandatory requirement for solar ready buildings applicable to hotel/motel and multi-family buildings of ten stories or fewer, other non-residential buildings of three stories or fewer and single family homes that are part of a subdivision of ten or more homes. The requirement goes on to specify that the “[solar ready roof area is] no less than fifteen percent of the total roof area.”

While having homes ready for potential solar installation is one matter, requiring them to act on said readiness is entirely another matter.

Given Berkeley’s history as a progressive city, especially on climate related issues, and last year’s vote to create stringent energy requirements for the future, the apparent challenges do not lie in passing a rooftop solar requirement, but rather in enacting it. When asked whether Berkeley’s potential solar rooftop requirement is feasible as a means to meet Berkeley’s energy goals, Greg Magofna, senior aide to Mayor Tom Bates who answered on the Mayor’s behalf, said, “Berkeley isn’t currently on track to meet the GHG emission reduction goals set forth by the Climate Action Plan, and we have to look at all of its different sources, including building energy use.”

When asked for specifics on how Berkeley’s potential requirement would stack up against other solar pioneering cities like San Francisco or Santa Monica, Magofna said that the percentage of rooftop space for solar and the specifics of the type of new construction is going to be recommended by the Energy Commission, whose members have expertise specifically in energy requirements and regulations.

While a solar rooftop requirement appears on paper as a progressive and effective step towards reducing Berkeley’s footprint, underlying issues like the lack of new buildings and the additional cost potential residents would incur, could hinder the implementation of these requirements.

However, the City of Berkeley currently faces a crisis due to ever dwindling new housing opportunities.When scarce new houses are being built, there is less opportunity for new solar panels to be installed and the solar construction requirements and regulations are less effective.

When asked about if the city would consider extending these potential requirements to existing residential and commercial buildings to combat the lack of new construction, Magofna said, “not at the moment, but that could be examined in the future.”

Finding new buildings to install solar on is not the only potential issue. Solar energy, while not as expensive as in years past, is still not cheap by many standards.

According to EnergySage, an online solar marketplace, the average 6kW solar system in California costs $13,700 – $17,500 while the average 10kW system costs $22,800 – $29,200. These costs would add to the currently high living expenses of Berkeley.

In the midst of a housing crisis, some believe that the solar requirements would add unnecessary costs to the large numbers of current construction plans in Berkeley.

With the ever increasing home prices in Berkeley, and with many tax breaks, financing options, and incentives for solar to exist on the federal, state, and city level, solar requirements are still something potential residents will have to consider if they wish to buy or rent in Berkeley.

Magofna hopes that by having solar integrated initially, it would not become an afterthought, rather a norm.A solar rooftop requirement in Berkeley would be truly innovative and an unmistakably positive step towards reducing carbon emissions. Many say that the new proposal for solar requirements is equal parts ambitious and realistic for a city like Berkeley.

While there are still many variables and unknowns at this point in the process, the fact that rooftop solar requirements are being discussed as a serious proposal is a first step for the City Council. Many Berkeley residents hope that the new proposal will soon progress into a regulation.