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| 05/16/18

Would California’s new household solar rule work in BC?


California has just adopted one of the most stringent solar energy rules in the US, requiring that all new homes have solar panels on their roof. Would such a strategy work in British Columbia?

By 2020, all new homes in California must have solar panels on their roof, according to a new requirement adopted last week by the California Energy Commission.

Under the new rules, construction firms must deliver on one of two options. Individual homes must come with a solar power system delivering a minimum of 2 to 3 kilowatts, or build a shared solar-power system providing the same power to a group of homes.

The requirement could add between US$8,000 to $12,000 to the cost of constructing a home, but buyers would be able to recoup this and then some by enjoying lower electricity bills.

Solar panel firms and the construction industry have cheered the development. But energy experts and economists have been somewhat less enamoured.

They have three main concerns. The first is that rooftop solar is a particularly expensive way to encourage greater adoption of the renewable energy source. University of California economist Severin Borenstein issued a terse letter to the commission warning as much. Household solar systems in the US cost 12.9-16.7 cents per kilowatt-hour over the lifetime of the panels, according to the US Department of Energy. But utility-scale solar farms enjoy economies of scale, dropping the cost down to 4.4 to 6.6 cents.

The second major worry is that California already produces more electricity from solar than it can use. The state produces about 16 per cent of its electricity this way, five per cent from rooftops and 11 per cent from solar farms. When it is especially sunny, production has to be turned off, or “curtailed,” otherwise the excess can make prices go negative as California has to pay neighbouring states to take its electricity in order to avoid damaging the grid.

Finally, the experts say that the current pricing structure in effect ends up displacing the costs of the system as a whole onto the less wealthy.

The Climate Examiner spoke to energy systems researcher Bryson Robertson of the 2060 Project about how such displacement works and whether such requirements might work in BC.

“There is a cost disparity between putting electricity into the system and pulling it out,” he explains. “When a homeowner is putting it in, the only cost is the generation, in other words the cost of the solar panels.

“But when a homeowner is pulling it out, in addition to the cost of generation, there is the cost of the transmission lines and the cost of ensuring reliability. These additional costs are transferred to those households that cannot afford to put solar panels on their roof.”

Would such a system work in BC? Robertson says it depends at what sort of scale.

He says that at high penetrations, there ceases to be a climate benefit. Solar in California makes a lot of sense because the region is summer-peaking both on the demand side and the supply side. “It’s sunniest in the summer, and this is also when everybody is using air-conditioning. There’s a great complementarity.”

“In BC, we don’t have much air-conditioning due to our cooler climate. Instead, it’s heating in the winter that really drives our energy demand, precisely when we have the least amount of sun.”

“But at small penetrations such a rule could provide some benefit to BC. However, we would have to make sure we get the pricing right so that there isn’t this cost displacement.”

In depth

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Climate news and analysis that's relevant for you, every week.