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A new San Francisco ordinance puts real teeth in a state solar law that requires rooftop "solar zones" for new buildings.

Clean Power

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

A new San Francisco ordinance puts real teeth in a state solar law that requires rooftop “solar zones” for new buildings.

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

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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