The national homebuilding world is once again paying close attention to what’s going on in California. Since Jan. 1, all new homes there must be solarized as the state strives to become the first with a carbon-free economy.

If you’re imagining massive subdivisions with a sea of black rectangles on every roof all facing the sun, think again. It could happen that way, but if the model promoted by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and its 1.5 million customers should prevail, those solar panels could be off roofs and off-site in remote areas.

It’s called “community solar” and it’s become even more contentious in California than it has been in New Mexico — but for different reasons.

California’s new solar mandate anticipated some homes could not feasibly have solar panels. Either roof areas were too small, as in multifamily structures, or roofs were too shaded by adjacent properties for adequate solar access.

Sacramento’s utility saw a loophole. It’s offering an option for builders and developers to participate in something called SolarShares, which are off-site solar fields delivering electricity over the utility’s transmission lines. That’s what’s upsetting the solar purists. They contend the exemption for small or shaded roofs was never intended to include fields connected to existing transmission lines owned by the utility.

The California Building Industry Association lobbied hard for the Sacramento pilot program. Other California utilities, both municipally owned and investor-owned, are considering following Sacramento’s lead.

Surprisingly, the builders’ lobby was joined by affordable housing advocates who correctly contend rooftop solar on every house is prohibitively expensive to the initial cost of a home. If the panels are owned by the homeowner, the added price to the home is between $7,500 to $15,000. Leasing panels and paying a fixed rate for electricity lowers the initial cost down to around $3,000 per house.

On the other hand, signing on to SolarShares only adds about $1,200 to the cost of the home, a big savings when trying to provide a home for sale at an affordable price. The problem is the SolarShares electricity bills are only projected to save $40 annually over regularly supplied electricity whereas homeowner-owned rooftop panels pay for themselves in seven years and then are free for the next 20 years of panel life.

Panel manufacturers, environmentalist and others say the rules are being subverted to benefit utilities. They say aging utility-owned transmission and distribution lines are problems for which ratepayers will be on the hook. The fires that wiped out the small town of Paradise, Calif., were sparked by faulty transmission lines. Electricity also loses its oomph the farther it travels from panels to plugs, meaning rooftop panels are most efficient.

With battery backup, which conceivably could be the electrical vehicle in a garage, rooftop panels could allow uninterrupted electrical service even during periods of power shutoffs, which happens periodically during dry seasons in California.

In New Mexico, community solar proponents, mainly the environmentalist community, have tried and failed to get legislation passed to allow for its proliferation. The first attempt in 2019 was thwarted by lobbyists from both PNM and regional electrical cooperatives. After interim committees hashed it over, it was tried again in 2020, this time with tepid support from PNM but still some trepidation from cooperatives.

Advocates are cautiously optimistic for passage in the next year’s 60-day session. With support from PNM, affordable housing advocates, homebuilders, developers and New Energy Economy, it’s possible we might see this important concept finally approved.

There’s a vast open field on the north side of town that used to be the municipal landfill. It’s not suitable for structures but would be perfect for Santa Fe’s version of SolarShares.

Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association. He can be reached at shanafe@aol.com.

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(1) comment

Hank Hughes

We need more solar and I like the ideas in this column.

Welcome to the discussion.

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