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Clean Power San Francisco solar law

Published on April 21st, 2016 | by Tina Casey


San Francisco Solar Map About To Get Way More Crowded With New Rooftop Law

April 21st, 2016 by  

The City of San Francisco has just become the first major US city to require new buildings to be constructed with solar panels or solar thermal water heaters. If that sounds like putting the cart before the horse in terms of building design, it’s not. The new regulation dovetails with an existing state law that already requires new buildings of 10 stories or less to be designed with “solar-ready” roof areas of at least 15%.

San Francisco solar law

San Francisco Solar

San Francisco is living proof of a recent finding by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which showed that cities can meet the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan goals without an assist from state-level policy. According to NREL, cities can still drive the transition to solar and other forms of renewable energy even in states where policymakers are working in the opposite direction.

California happens to be among the most solar-friendly states in the entire country, and it looks like San Francisco isn’t the only municipality to coat-tail on state solar policy. The city of Sebastopol, for example, has a solar requirement for both residential and commercial new construction.

Even city-level Republican leadership has hopped aboard the clean power bandwagon (national clean power leadership is a whole ‘nother can of worms for the party). Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris signed and spearheaded the first solar requirement for new residential buildings, and has vowed to make his city the “Alternative Energy Capital of the World.”

He’s got his work cut out for him. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Mayor Ed Lee have both promoted a 100% clean power goal for San Francisco by 2030.


San Francisco Rooftop Solar

The statewide solar-ready requirement for new construction was imposed after surveys showed that most existing buildings cannot accommodate solar panels. In San Francisco, for example, only 30% of existing buildings in the city are suitable for a rooftop solar installation. The new law did not include a requirement to actually install the equipment, just to set aside a “solar zone” free of shade or other obstructions.

The new city ordinance puts real teeth into that measure. Like the state law, it also includes some degree of flexibility. Buildings that are constructed with parking lots, for example, can meet the requirement by installing solar canopies. Other covered areas on the property can also be used.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener pushed for the new solar legislation, and in a statement yesterday he underscored the power of cities to be engines of change:

“By increasing our use of solar power, San Francisco is once again leading the nation in the fight against climate change and the reduction of our reliance on fossil fuels…We need to continue to pursue aggressive renewable energy policies to ensure a sustainable future for our city and our region.”

According to our friends over at the Solar Tribune, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors may also add a living roof option to the new solar requirement, which would give building designers more flexibility. Living roofs also help meet the city’s clean power goals by providing insulation for the building and helping to reduce the “heat island” effect in warm weather.

What About The 99%?

The new law takes effect next year and will affect about 200 buildings that are currently in the pipeline.

Those of you familiar with San Francisco may be wondering what impact it will have on affordable housing in the city.

Power purchase agreements make it possible to install solar panels with no money up front, so simply adding solar to a building would not necessarily increase costs. And, since state law already requires a solar set-aside, the city ordinance does not impose new design burdens.

According to Wiener’s press release, the Board of Supervisors approved the new law unanimously with the support of, among others, an environmental justice organization that works with disadvantaged communities called the Brightline Defense Project.

Brightline is firmly behind rooftop solar. Last year, the organization partnered with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) to commission a statewide poll that showed overwhelming support for rooftop solar. In a press release announcing the findings, Executive Director Eddie Ahn drew the connection between clean power and new jobs:

“With the right policymaking, rooftop solar does more than allow customers to reduce their monthly utility bills; it can also benefit low-income customers while creating good jobs and reducing the effects of climate change. Brightline will continue to champion more solar for everyone in the future.”

The Energy Department is also working with startups and other stakeholders to solar improve financing and develop other ways to accelerate the adoption of solar, while helping to ensure that low income communities can get a full share of the new clean power landscape.

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Image (screenshot): Yellow dots show solar installations in San Francisco as of 2014, via sfenergymap.org.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Marion Meads

    And the only fairest orientation of rooftops at the same height without shading the other panels is horizontal. You can’t circumvent geometry.

  • LookingForward

    Next step: on low-rise buildings, solar instead of tiles is mandatory. On high-rise buildings, micro windturbines are mandatory!

  • Raye Lancaster

    Parris is a hypocrite. He flies around in a private plane that is powered by fossil fuel. He owns two huge homes. Rather than rooftop solar he is tearing up the desert in Lancaster creating dirt pollution and exposing Valley Fever. There are far better locations for solar than in this populated area. His city is selling so-called “Green” electricity which is supported by oil and coal burning power plants, yet he opposes a natural gas power plant that would reduce overall emissions. He makes a living suing school districts and cities for district voting which he refuses to establish in his city, and sues VFW Posts and local businesses with regularity. I tip my hat to San Francisco and flip the finger to Parris who is quite possibly the most untrustworthy person in our Valley.

  • Ironic77

    This is actually pretty dumb. In addition to all the stupidity already pointed out, California has a modern grid, so the investment in solar would be better made in the desert than it would be on roof tops, many of which won’t face the right direction, or which could be used for more valuable purposes such as gardens or yoga studios or whatever. Sure, if the roof is going to face south, and won’t be used for other purposes, but why should the city mandate that instead of the owner?
    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, solar is economical largely because of peak demand being during the day. However, California already has so much solar capacity now, it’s already having to sell it off for cheaper to nearby states.
    Political science and law majors who couldn’t cut it in other fields have no business sticking their noses into economics and science — at least until they understand those two fields.

  • Freddy D

    “Alternative Energy Capital of the World” (referring to Lancaster’s ambitions) – When will the term “Alternative Energy” die? It makes solar and wind sound fringe, not for real, non-mainstream. I hope we in this thread encourage the demise of the term “Alternative Energy” and go for “Clean Energy” or “Renewable Energy” instead.

  • Armchair Hydrogeologist

    I’m not sure SF is the best place to try it first. The insolation in much of the city is mediocre due to two reasons:
    (1) Microclimates of the marine layer shroud much of the city for substantial portions of time.
    (2) The city is already built up a lot and many sites won’t get a lot of sun, rendering many systems nearly useless.

    There are other things that make this economically stupid:
    (1) SF also has the highest labor costs for skilled labor in the United States. I would know, I directly employ (or at least attempt to employ) electricians in the area. There absolutely no shortage these types of jobs in SF bay area so this measure fails there.

    (2) The city has adequate existing T&D connections and capacity to other areas that get plenty of cheap access to low cost renewable power. Areas like the Altamont pass which gets good wind. In addition there are ties to PATH15 which is the gateway to the best utility PV solar system in the world – typically pumping in 7.8GW of utility solar during a typical day and climbing rapidly enough to the point where curtailment is already occurring. It is very rare to see a weather pattern where SF is sunny and bulk of central valley PV sites to be cloudy.

    We would be better off having the money not spent on this and going into a fund that ensured additional transmission access to dirt cheap sub $0.04/kwh PV projects elsewhere in the state.

    • Freddy D

      Interesting point on labor costs / employment.

      On weather, SF is actually excellent for solar. Yes, marine layer in parts of the city for parts of the year and despite this, solar potential is fantastic relative to much of the country or world. It never gets hot either, so panels perform very well.

      You’re certainly correct that, by definition, it’s an urban environment with high-rises going up like weeds in certain parts of town now. Most of the square mile area of the city is low-rise residential with building height restrictions. For the neighborhoods with high-rises, well, PV will be irrelevant. Go for living roofs on the high-rises so the residents have a place to BBQ!

      So, net net, I’d conclude it’s a fine place to initiate new policies like this. These policies will take time to debug and learn from. We can end up disagreeing – I think all benefit from a healthy dialog.

    • ROBwithaB

      Yup. Just go inland a bit.
      Even from the other side of the world. I know that SF has lots of fog.

      This strikes me as feelgood political posturing. The transition to sustainable energy systems won’t happen if there is massive mis-allocation of capital.
      the same amount of money would probably buy multiples more MWh of clean power if it was invested more wisely.

  • HamPV

    While this is a great idea, what will it do to stop neighboring buildings from shading those newly installed systems? I did some work years ago assessing solar rooftop potential in S.F. and realized that something like this would go nowhere until solar access easements were figured out.

    • jeffhre

      Chicken and egg problem?

  • Stephen YCheck

    This is awesome! I wish Florida would do this!

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