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The small city of Sebastopol, Calif., which is home to approximately 7,200 residents and 1.2 MW of installed solar capacity, has become the second community in the state to require that all new residential buildings include a solar system.

On May 7, the Sebastopol City Council unanimously passed its provision, less than two months after Lancaster, Calif., established a similar requirement. However, Sebastopol's legislation also applies to new commercial buildings.

Sebastopol Councilman Patrick Slayter, co-author of the rule, says the city has been pursuing solar for years. He notes that every city facility has a PV array on it, and solar retrofits are commonplace in the region. In addition, community representatives and local businesses came together in 2002 to establish advocacy group Solar Sebastopol, which later became a countywide nonprofit program known as Solar Sonoma County.

This new mandate, Slayter says, is a way to ensure local solar development continues.

“It just seems like the right thing to do,” he explains. “Having rooftop space available, with unencumbered solar access essentially from sunrise to sunset, but not considering having a PV array on it - that just seems unconscionable to me.”

John Parry, owner of local installer Solar Works, welcomes the city council’s decision.

“The city has basically taken good practices and made them into law,” he says. “We in the solar industry are pleased that our legislators are finally understanding the benefits of solar and that we’re moving into a new era, addressing our greenhouse-gas problems and strengthening the economics of our communities.”

The rules

Sebastopol’s provision will require any new commercial or residential building to have a solar array and will also apply to new major additions or remodels.

Regarding existing commercial buildings, additions that increase the square footage by 1,800 square feet or more, or remodels to 50% or more of a facility, will fall under the new rule. Meanwhile, 75% of a residential building must be remodeled in order to be included.

“You pretty much need to be rebuilding your entire house in order for this to kick in,” Slayter notes, adding that current construction projects are exempt from the rule.

There will be two methods to determine how much solar must be built. The prescriptive method requires 2 watts per square foot of conditioned building area - i.e., non-warehouse space that is heated or cooled. The performance method requires that the PV system must offset 75% of the building’s electrical load on an annual basis.

“The difference between the two methods is that the system may only need to be half the size if it will offset 75 percent of the building’s electricity use,” explains Slayter.

Building owners will be responsible for the cost of the solar systems, but he maintains that the investment is small and well worth it.

“Yes, there is an upfront cost, but the payback time is short,” he says. “Once you reach that day the system is paid for, it’s free energy. The benefit to yourself from a financial standpoint is positive in the long term, and the benefit to the environment is overwhelmingly positive in the long term.”

And Slayter has first-hand knowledge of the benefits of solar. As an architect, he says he worked on a local restaurant whose solar installation led to an electricity bill of only $15 a month. As a councilman, his office building is powered using solar energy and he can see a PV array from his window.

Builders who choose not to follow the new solar ordinance - or those for whom a solar installation is not feasible, due to such factors as shading - will be required to pay an in-lieu fee, which has yet to be determined.

Acceptance

“I’m a little surprised by how much attention this is getting from the media, because it was so easily and readily accepted by the folks in town,” Slayter says.

According to the councilman and Solar Works’ Parry, the provision received no opposition from the local community. At a previous city meeting, Parry notes, someone expressed concern that solar might be too expensive, but he says the key to easing worries was education.

“Solar has proven an economic benefit, and those who still believe it is too expensive are just not up to date on where things are at for the solar sector,” he remarks. “It’s reached that point where it is highly economical for most people.”

If any protest were to arise, Slayter would be ready with a counter-argument: “We already have a building code mandating that buildings must be constructed to withstand earthquakes and natural forces; the state is already telling us how we need to build, so really, this is just one more requirement.”

Possibilities

Two hardly constitutes a trend, but now that Sebastopol and Lancaster both require solar installations on new buildings, similar provisions may be on their way.

“It’s likely more jurisdictions will require that buildings are designed solar-ready - not necessarily requiring people to put solar in, but making it feasible for when they do,” says Parry.

“However, it’s pretty typical that once an idea is out there, others will pick it up and run with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if other communities followed suit, especially in California’s Bay Area.”


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