El Dorado Hills — Rows of newly minted model homes unspool across a verdant, rolling landscape in this sprawling master-planned community near Sacramento.
Solar panels glint across 1,000 acres of rooftops. On a tidy cul-de-sac, a faux-grass lawn flanks the driveway to the home of the future.
The two-story residence brims with state-of-the-art energy-saving technology: highly efficient heating and cooling systems, dense wall insulation, triple-paned windows, smog-gobbling roof tiles and “smart” appliances that spring into action when power demand is lowest.
Power-sipping homes like this will be critical to the state’s recalibrated energy policies. Those now includes a law that requires California’s built environment—tens of millions of structures—to operate twice as efficiently by the year 2030, slashing consumption of electricity and natural gas to half their projected levels.
The mandate, intended to reduce the state’s need for carbon-spewing power plants, is part ofCalifornia’s mission to address climate change by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Residential and commercial buildings account for about 20 percent of those pollutants.
Exactly how the state’s ambitious goal will be achieved is unclear. What is certain is that making homes and other buildings use energy more efficiently will cost money up front, in a state that is struggling to create more affordable housing. Home prices here are more than twice the national average, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The new target builds on policies calling for more power from renewable-energy sources such as sun and the wind, and more mass transit to get cars off the road.
“There’s no one big solution, no silver bullet,” said Andrew McAllister, a member of theCalifornia Energy Commission. “There is a lot of silver buckshot.”
No action is required for existing homes or commercial buildings unless they undergo significant renovations. And the law stipulates that its implementation not be financially onerous forCalifornians.
But it is not clear exactly how the state will measure efficiency or how energy upgrades will affect the state’s low-income housing supply.
Figuring things out lies largely with the Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission,which say they hope to know more by the middle of next year. The Air Resources Board, which regulates air quality in California, will help, as will the major utilities.
“The details are not fleshed out. But to reach our climate targets, investing in energy efficiency is important,” said Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). “It’s going to be costly.”
Although California’s building code is revised every three years to reflect technological advances, at least 50 percent of existing structures were put up before 1978, according to the state energy commission. Residential and commercial buildings account for about two-thirds of statewide electricity use, so there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Until the state’s approach is fleshed out, progress toward the government’s new targets rests heavily on the building code. It won’t fully reflect the new goals until 2020, but the latest update, to take effect Jan. 1 of next year, does require a higher degree of efficiency.
Starting in January, homeowners and commercial landlords who embark on majorrenovations—the type that trigger permits and inspections—may have new requirements for walls and attics, need high-performance lighting or require tankless water heaters, among other items, all potentially more costly.
Matthew Hargrove, Senior Vice President of governmental affairs at the California BusinessProperties Assn., represents owners of commercial buildings, who are concerned about the cost of upgrades. He said the last code update tripled the cost of redoing lighting systems.
The mandate seemed simple enough; he said, but “we had lighting contractors saying the requirements were so expensive that their businesses died on the vine” when many building owners chose not to upgrade.
Maximum residential efficiency will almost certainly come with some sticker shock as well.Estimates vary dramatically, depending on the extent of efficiency.
Jacob Atalla is Vice President of Sustainability for KB Home, which is building the technologically sophisticated houses in El Dorado Hills. He said the systems in those structures saved about $3,948 annually in utility expenses. But the price tag for those houses runs about $50,000 more than for homes without so many energy-saving bells and whistles.
The energy commission estimates it will cost only an additional $2,700 for a new home to simply meet the building code that will take effect on Jan. 1. The agency estimates that over the life of a 30-year mortgage, those code requirements would save a homeowner $7,400 in energy and maintenance expenses.
However, a commission report last year acknowledged that most Californians stay in homes only five to eight years and “may not recoup the value of a deep retrofit project while they own the home.”
Utility companies currently offer $1 billion a year for programs, some funded by their customers, to encourage energy efficiency. Major utilities and state agencies offer rebates for
homeowners who upgrade, and a myriad programs help low-income families use less energy.
Nonetheless, there is concern that the burden of complying with the requirements will fall heavily on the poor. Nearly a third of the state’s utility customers are categorized as low-income, according to the Public Utilities Commission.
They currently receive about $30 million a year in federal weatherproofing assistance, according to the Public Utilities Commission. But they may need more.
“It’s important that sustainability not be defined just regarding environmental sustainability, but equality and income sustainability,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program atPublic Citizen, the non-partisan public interest group. “Cost can’t be a barrier to participate.”
Proponents note that as technology evolves, it gets less expensive. State officials vow thatCalifornia will be able to slash its energy footprint.
“The conditions are absolutely there to achieve our goals,” said McAllister. “We can do it.”
CALmatters is a non-profit journalism venture dedicated to exploring state policies and politics. For more stories by Julie Cart go to calmatters.org/about/staff/julie-cart/.