San Francisco to Require Rooftop Solar On New Construction

San Francisco, the city by the bay, is serious about tackling climate change. To that end, last week the city’s board of supervisors passed an ordinance that requires the installation of solar panels on all new residential and commercial buildings built in the city, beginning Jan. 1, 2017.

Introduced by Supervisor Scott Wiener, the ordinance passed unanimously, making San Francisco the first major U.S. city to require that solar panels be installed on new construction. Two smaller California cities have already passed similar ordinances.

The board cited a number of reasons why San Francisco needs the ordinance based on its “climatic, topological, and geological conditions.” And those conditions include the city being a coastal one that it is on the tip of a peninsula. As such, it is vulnerable to sea-level rise. The ordinance acknowledges that the city is “already experiencing” the effects of “excessive carbon dioxide emissions” as rising sea levels threaten its shoreline and infrastructure. Already, rising sea levels “have caused the city to expend funds to modify the sewer system,” the ordinance reads. 

“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,” Supervisor Scott Wiener said in a statement. “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.”

The new ordinance goes beyond a California law that requires 15 percent of roof space to be solar-ready, or shade- and obstruction-free. It will also help San Francisco meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2017; by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2025; and 80 percent by 2050.

The new rule is expected to increase the number of solar panels in the city by 50,000 and save 26.3 million tons of carbon a year on new construction, according to two former commissioners, who wrote an opinion piece supporting it.

San Francisco has long been a leader in dealing with climate change.

In 2008, the city became one of the first in the U.S. to require its departments to track their carbon footprints and develop annual climate action plans that outline steps for environmental improvement.

California is a renewable energy leader

As a California city, San Francisco is located within a state that is a renewable energy leader. California law requires that utilities get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. California also has statewide goals of reducing GHG emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and getting 50 percent of its electricity use from renewable sources by 2030.

California’s renewables operating capacity as of October 2015 is 21,700 megawatts, including 3,500 MW of self-generating solar photovoltaic (PV) energy. While self-generating solar, which is usually rooftop panels, has increased, so has large-scale renewable generation. In 2010, California generated 6,600 MW of large-scale renewable power. This grew to 14,300 MW by 2015.

On the local level, six California cities made the list of the top 20 solar cities in the U.S. A report by Environment California ranked cities by the total amount of installed solar PV capacity by the end of 2015. Three California cities made the top five spots: Los Angeles ranking No. 1, San Diego No. 2 and San Jose No. 5.

There is a reason Los Angeles topped the list. In 2015, Los Angeles released its Sustainable City Plan which calls for increasing the city’s solar PV capacity. And Los Angeles already has more installed solar power than any other U.S. city, but it has capacity for much, much more. A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that Los Angeles has the capacity for 9,000 MW of rooftop solar PV, which would provide 60 percent of the city’s power. Los Angeles now has 215 MW of solar PV capacity.

Image credit: Flickr/Western Area Power