Solar Panels Are Now Required On San Francisco Buildings

Solar panels are now a mandatory building requirement, thanks to a new San Francisco legislation. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pass this bill on Tuesday.

This new requirement makes San Francisco the first city to mandate solar panel installation. It states that starting January of 2017, all commercial buildings with fewer than 10 stories must have solar panels installed on at least 15 percent of their rooftops. In addition, the panels cannot be built in shaded areas so that they maximize the purely renewable energy of the sun.

The main goal here, according to Scott Wiener, San Francisco’s city supervisor and introducer of the bill, is to fight climate change on the home front. With so much sun in California, solar panels will be a welcome investment.

“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. Activating underutilized roof space is a smart and efficient way to promote the use of solar energy and improve our environment. We need to continue to pursue aggressive renewable energy policies to ensure a sustainable future for our city and our region.”

As of now, the legislation doesn’t look like it will impact the residential housing market, meaning that typical homes in the building process will avoid the solar panel requirement. This is good news for homebuyers, since solar panel installations drive up the price of homes. They’re extremely expensive to install, and rarely make for a good return on investment.

Existing homeowners won’t need to add solar panels to their homes, though legislatures have actively pursued such an endeavor. This is beneficial for the housing market, since those looking to make the most of their refinancing rarely find solar panels to be profitable investments.

However, apartment buildings and similar residential structures less than 10 stories high will face these restrictions. This could cause a stark increase in rent prices in new developments, as landlords seek to make profit on apartment buildings.

Analysts estimate that this move could help the state of California avoid 26,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. The reduction in emissions comes just in time, since the Golden State has the dirtiest air in the nation.

San Francisco is one of the worst cities in California for pollution. The city’s location, as well as the high population, are the main culprits of the pollution.

“As a coastal city located on the tip of a peninsula, San Francisco is vulnerable to sea level rise, and human activities releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere cause increases in worldwide average temperature, which contribute to melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of ocean water — resulting in rising sea levels,” reads the ordinance.

“San Francisco is already experiencing the repercussions of excessive CO2 emissions as rising sea levels threaten the City’s shoreline and infrastructure, have caused significant erosion, increased impacts to infrastructure during extreme tides, and have caused the City to expend funds to modify the sewer system,” it continues.

Sustainability is the ultimate goal, and there is a little flexibility for home builders. For those who don’t have the option to build solar panels, they may choose to build a living roof instead, such as a garden. The argument here is that the plant life can help to clean the air as well, which makes its effect comparable to solar technologies.

There are good and bad things about this new legislation. The idea behind it is positive, but, as Timothy Seppala of Engadget points out, the impact may not be as high as desired.

“This could just be seen as political grandstanding,” says Seppala. “The number of sub-10-floor buildings going up in San Francisco is pretty low, especially in terms of residential construction. More than that, buildings are already up against strong opposition from residents for blocking sunlight, so having anything blocking power sources could cause similar situations.”

This isn't the first time San Francisco has passed legislation in an effort to increase sustainability and reduce emissions, and it almost certainly won't be the last. Skeptics are simply concerned that each law passed does very little good in the long run. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) This isn’t the first time San Francisco has passed legislation in an effort to increase sustainability and reduce emissions, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. Skeptics are simply concerned that each law passed does very little good in the long run. [Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]Political critics are calling this a publicity stunt and claiming that there are better things that could be done in order to improve the air quality and reduce emissions. Brad Plumer, writer for Vox, believes that boosting housing density is actually the better solution.

Plumer points out that San Francisco has several zoning restrictions that limit the number of housing units that can be built inside city limits, even though greater housing density has been proven to reduce emissions.

“Limits on density may reduce San Francisco’s environmental impact, but they increase emissions elsewhere in the country,” Plumer says. “That’s because the people who can live in San Francisco emit far less carbon dioxide than people living in nearby suburban areas.”

Plumer’s statement is one of many pleas asking California legislation to do something more impactful regarding sustainability in the state. Requiring solar panels on small buildings might look good on paper, but when put into practice, it’s not likely to make a noticeable difference.

[Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]