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Showdown at High Noon: 2 Towns Compete for 'First' Solar Home Ordinance
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May 15, 2013

Showdown at High Noon: 2 Towns Compete for 'First' Solar Home Ordinance

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor

The image of “a shining city on a hill” has been evoked by many U.S. politicians—in recent history, by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan—but two months ago, R. Rex Parris, the mayor of Lancaster, Calif.,  moved to make it a reality.

Parris successfully passed legislation in March that will require all newly constructed single-family homes in Lancaster to deploy solar arrays that generate between 0.5 kilowatts (kW) and 1.5 kW of power, depending on lot size and location, effective January 1, 2014.  

New multi-family developments also are covered by the ordinance. Builders of subdivisions will be able to aggregate the houses’ requirements. If 10 houses in a subdivision each have a 1.0-kW requirement, the builder can install a single 10-kW system, two 5-kilowatt systems or four 2.5 kilowatt systems. In addition, builders can meet the requirements off-site, by providing evidence that they have purchased solar energy credits from another development in Lancaster.

The new Residential Zones Update was adopted by a City Council vote of 5-0, after previously being recommended unanimously by Lancaster’s Planning Commission. In putting the law on the books, Parris accomplished what former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to do in 2006—require that almost all new homes come equipped with grid-tied solar power generation.

He also achieved what another California city had aimed for – beating Sebastopol, a small town of 7,400 in Sonoma County that approved a similar regulation at the beginning of May, to the title of first in the nation; and retaining bragging rights to call Lancaster “the solar energy capital of the world.”

Indeed, Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes grumbled to The New York Times, “We were going to be number one. Now we’re number two.”

Politically Incorrect?

Interestingly enough, Lancaster’s Parris is a Republican and a conservative who backs renewable energy. As the chief executive of a city of 155,000 residents that enjoys sunshine 300 days a year, he sees the environmental and economic value in promoting solar power—and he makes no apologies for his administration’s actions.

Global warming, Parris believes, will eventually persuade others to realize that locally generated renewable energy may provide a safety net, as the cost of cooling desert homes goes up. Is global warming truly a threat? Absolutely, he told The Times. “I may be a Republican. I’m not an idiot.”

Despite resistance to the required high-cost solar system components from the housing industry, Parris has been successful in recruiting a residential builder to support his initiative. He has joined with KB Home, a Los Angeles-based developer of sustainable communities, to implement his vision. KB is sourcing its solar panels from San Jose-based SunPower and has just recently completed its 1,000th new home.

He also has been working for several years with San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity (News - Alert), an installer and financier of home systems. In fact, even before the Residential Zones Update was authorized, Lancaster’s City Hall, Performing Arts Center and Clear Channel (News - Alert) Stadium were outfitted with solar arrays—for a cumulative 1.5 megawatts (MW) of power.

What’s more, the city itself put together a financing plan that enabled the school board to buy 32,094 solar panels and install them on 25 local schools—generating 7.5 MW of power for 35 percent less than the school district was paying for electricity at the time. Another 8 MW are being generated by systems operating at the local high school and at Antelope Valley College.

In fact, Lancaster is so satisfied with its solar generation plans to date that Parris believes he will lead a nationwide trend. “It’s easy to sit back and do nothing if you’re a politician; that’s how you keep getting re-elected,” Parris told the IMT Clean & Green Journal. “But if there are enough forward-thinking leaders who see what a destructive effect global warming is having on our planet, and how solar panels are one way to help in the future, I think there will be a lot of other places that do what we’re doing.”

Stymied at Second Place

In stark contrast to Lancaster, the small City of Sebastopol is dealing with a setback. Mayor Michael Kyes, a liberal Democrat who had planned to be a pacesetter, now has been preempted at number two.

Identifying the “positives” in the situation, Kyes told Watch Sonoma County that Lancaster is a “Republican community” and that Sebastopol is “liberal”—asserting that the nearly simultaneous passage of their laws speaks to the “broad support” nationwide for solar power.

Sebastopol’s ordinance would require new residential and commercial buildings — as well as major additions and remodeling — to provide solar generation equal to 2 watts of power per square foot of insulated building area (or to offset 75 percent of the building’s annual electric load). If shade or other conditions make solar power impractical, builders may use other energy alternatives or pay a fee.

Kyes said the city has been “very proactive” in solar development, with more than 1.2 MW of capacity installed, or enough to power 600 homes. What’s more, he said, “This ordinance will add to it—keep greenhouse gases from getting worse.”

Edited by Alisen Downey

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