East Coast meets West Coast style – how 2 states are advancing clean energy

By Rory ChristianLauren Navarro

Cities and states are taking the initiative to address climate change independently from the federal administration. With unique political contexts and environmental needs, each local authorities’ policies address specific climate challenges.

California’s new landmark mandate, requiring solar panels on new home constructions, and New York’s ongoing Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative, illustrate just how different paths can lead to accomplish the same intent: to fight climate change.  They are also indicative of how elected officials are prioritizing energy, infrastructure, and housing in their planning.

The longer states wait to take action to set or meet environmental goals, the more expensive their efforts will become. More importantly, the delay can affect the economic and health benefits from new jobs and lower emissions that improve residents’ quality of life.

New York and California are well positioned because they’ve capitalized on emerging trends by addressing legal and regulatory issues in ways other states have yet to do. Let’s take a look at their approaches and challenges.

Solar on most new California homes

California made history recently when the Energy Commission updated their building codes to include solar panels on all new homes fewer than three stories built starting in 2020. The update also includes standards to make new homes more energy efficient and, in some cases, incentivizes energy storage. Where homes may not be able to have rooftop solar, the mandate requires them to have access to a community, or shared, solar resource or increase their energy efficiency even more to make up for it.

This push to make California’s new housing stock run on sunshine is part of a larger trend towards electrification. However, the standard has caused an interesting debate among energy enthusiasts about whether this is the best way to meet the state’s goals at the lowest cost. (Check out David Roberts’ Vox article for a breakdown on the supporting and opposing arguments.)  Either way, the mandate raises exciting questions and opportunities around how California can handle all this additional solar.

New York tackles efficiency and proper solar compensation

Across the country, New York is taking a different approach to the same problem. The state adds, on average, over 30,000 new residential buildings a year. And looking at single family homes alone (10,000 of the new-buildings stock), adopting a similar mandate to California’s could result in an additional 65 megawatts of additional solar for the state every year – or adding roughly 50 percent of current installed capacity over 10 years.

Though New York may not follow California’s lead by establishing similar mandates, the state has taken significant steps to lay the groundwork for more people to adopt solar. In fact, over 90 percent of New York’s total solar capacity is generated by distributed solar – largely rooftop panels.

Solar is and will be a critical component for energy efficiency upgrades in buildings. To further amplify solar growth, New York is aiming to move beyond net metering and compensate solar owners based on the value their installation provides to the electric grid.  This incentives the development of installations in denser areas of the state where it can provide the greatest benefit.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is currently developing NYStretch, a voluntary building code that can improve efficiency by 18-25 percent when applied to commercial and residential buildings. New York City will require buildings to adopt the codes in 2019, and is exploring options to eliminate fossil fuel use in buildings and reduce building energy use from all sources.

Making the energy system solar compatible

As we move towards cleaner energy, both California and New York are grappling with how to best set up the energy system and electric grid to best utilize all of these renewable (but somewhat intermittent) power sources – something other states will face in this transition if they haven’t already.

One solution explored in both New York and California is time-of-use electricity pricing. This tool (if done right) offers lower prices to people when they use electricity when it’s clean and cheap for utilities to provide. Time-of-use plus the new solar mandate could add up to more people storing the electricity their solar panels produce during the day to use in the afternoon and at night, when utility power is more expensive and made with dirtier sources.

Additionally, California is considering expanding its electric grid to include utilities in other western states. By creating a bigger market for clean energy, California can use more of its large-scale solar power and sell the additional power that’s currently shut off (or curtailed) when the state doesn’t have enough demand for it.

A future with more renewable energy

Despite the different approaches, New York and California are, without question, committed to accelerating renewable energy. Their experiences serve as an example for other states around the country. If other states act now, they could avoid the worst effects of climate change and the highest costs of avoiding it, while accelerating their local economies and improving the health and well-being of residents.

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