Solar Energy: The Clear Choice for New Homes

This month, California updated its building codes to require to require all new homes to include solar panels starting in 2020. This got us wondering: What the effect be if every state in the nation adopted a similar policy?

Jon Sundby

Policy Associate

In the 1980s, my grandfather bought a Betamax player. It was the height of the “videotape wars” between VHS and Betamax, and no one (including, apparently, the electronics clerk) knew which one was to be the future of video. Everyone who invested in a video player had to place their bets, and hope that time would prove them right. For my grandfather, his gamble resulted in a dusty stack of Betamax cassettes and a couple hundred dollars grudgingly spent on a VHS machine.

Right now, America is in a similar position when it comes to powering our homes. When building new homes, we can choose to power them using fossil fuels or equip them to harness clean, renewable energy. Our society is rapidly adopting the benefits of renewable energy and costs are declining dramatically – renewables can and should win the “energy wars” of our time, especially given the urgent need to address global warming. So, why should we invest in “Betamax” fossil fuels that will soon need to be upgraded? Choosing clean energy technologies, like solar panels, from the start is the clear choice for new homeowners.

Recognizing this, the California’s Building Standards Commission (CBSC) signed off on the state’s updated Building Energy Efficiency Standards this month, which will require all new homes to include solar panels starting in 2020. Not only will this save California homeowners money, but in the first three years it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 115,000 cars off the road.

In light of California’s exciting new policy, we at Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center wondered what the effects would be if every state adopted a similar policy. Our Solar Homes report found that installing solar panels on all new homes built from 2020 to 2026 would add as much solar energy capacity as the entire country currently has installed. And by 2045, installations would total 203 GW – more than 3.5 times our nation’s current solar energy capacity.

Through this policy alone, America could generate enough clean energy to avert 161 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent during 2045 – comparable to taking 34 million of today’s cars off the road that year.

Beyond the climate impacts, this policy could also bring concrete public health, financial and environmental benefits to the communities that adopt it. These include:

  • A Transformed Market: Installing solar panels on all new homes could lead to increased partnerships between solar installers and home builders; reduced “soft costs” (costs other than the panels themselves, which can make up two-thirds of the overall cost of a solar installations); technological improvements; and market maturation, in which even small solar installers could purchase components at wholesale prices. A 2018 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that these developments could collectively lower the price of solar energy installations by 59 percent.
  • Cleaner Air: By replacing gas and coal-fired power plants, solar energy lessens the strain on our lungs from smog and soot. From 2007 to 2015, wind and solar energy were estimated to prevent 3,000 to 12,700 premature deaths in the U.S. through improved air quality.
  • A Resilient Grid: Unlike centralized forms of energy generation, distributed solar energy, when paired with energy storage, can keep the lights on during blackouts. This technology can help ease the burden of disasters on a community.
  • Manageable Energy Demand: Installing solar panels on all new homes can help lessen increasing demand on the grid in the fastest growing states. Texas would gain over 24 GW of solar energy capacity by 2045 through a solar homes policy, adding over nine times its current capacity, followed by Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona.

All of these benefits make solar homes a no-brainer for states and cities across the country. Unlike my grandfather, we don’t have to blindly bet on our energy future. We already know which technology is a “Betamax” and which one can sustainably power our homes and communities for decades to come. Renewable energy – including rooftop solar – is the right choice.

Photo:  Rooftop solar panels at the Dover Family Housing Community. Credit: Roland Balik via United States Air Force, CC BY 1.0


Jon Sundby

Policy Associate