Powering Tomorrow: Understanding Solar Mandates in New Construction





Travis O'Guin


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Building codes are usually a pretty dry subject. They are the lengthy set of rules that govern how a new building is designed and constructed to ensure proper fire and life safety, structural safety, access compliance, and more. 

But over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a growing number of cities and communities get creative in how they incentivize community solar adoption — by writing solar requirements directly into the local building code. This ensures any new buildings must either include solar PV directly or be built to accommodate adding solar at a later time. Solar already makes financial sense in many markets, but these city- and state-driven mandates go a step further. Given their impact on property development, we recommend real estate owners keep a close eye on this commercial solar growing trend. 

The movement took a big leap forward in 2020 when California became the first state to fully mandate solar PV and energy storage for most newly constructed buildings But California is not alone. Many other communities are working on similar solar initiatives. Navigating the various incentives, measures, and mandates gets convoluted quickly, so let’s look at some of these solar mandates to understand how they impact real estate developers. 

Solar mandate vs. “solar-ready”

Solar-ready measures are designed to encourage solar adoption but do not necessarily require it. As the name implies, the new building doesn’t need to include solar panels when built, but it must be designed so that solar panels can easily be added later. These are rules in the building code that specify things like structural and electrical requirements that allow solar to easily be installed later.

Solar-ready mandates are common sense and generally popular. It’s easy to see how a few small changes to how a building is initially designed can save the owner significant cost and time later if/when they decide to add solar. Solar-ready mandates can be found across a wide array of U.S. cities, and New Jersey has a statewide “solar-ready” mandate for large warehouses with commercial solar potential.

Moving from solar ready to solar required

In 2008, Culver City, California, became the first major U.S. city to require solar photovoltaic installation on large commercial developments. In the years that followed, several other California cities followed suit, including Lancaster, Sebastopol, San Francisco, and Santa Monica. Outside California, we’ve seen similar solar mandates in Seattle, South Miami, and New York City.

These measures go beyond incentives and fully into requirements. It is written in the local building code that solar PV must be installed on most new buildings. The building code will specify exactly how much solar must be installed based on predetermined criteria, such as the square footage of the roof with a formula given to calculate the minimum solar. For example, Santa Monica’s code requires new nonresidential buildings to have a minimum of 2 watts of solar power per square foot of building space. 

California takes the lead with Title 24

In 2020, California became the first state in the nation to require solar PV and energy storage on most new residential and commercial construction. As part of the state’s building code, new buildings are required to include a minimum amount of solar and storage based on several factors: 

  1. The type of building (e.g., grocery, office, multifamily, office, etc.), 
  2. Size of the building (in terms of conditioned floor space), and 
  3. Location of the building within the state’s 16 climate zones.

The state provides the formulas for calculating the minimum solar and storage required. There are, of course, exceptions to the new rules. New buildings that are too small for solar or have significant shading from trees or other obstructions are exempt from the solar mandate.

Solar mandates are here to stay

With California taking the plunge into statewide mandates for residential and commercial solar, you can expect other states to follow suit. In fact, several other states are already working out their own updates to building codes that incentivize or require solar. Solar advocates are encouraging similar mandates in Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, among other states. Whether these legislative pushes result in solar mandates, solar ready mandates, or green roofs mandates, we can expect to see more solar adoption in new construction across the country. And we’ll see more cities and states utilize the humble building code to ensure a more sustainable future. 

Future-proof your investments

Some forward-thinking can make your solar installation cheaper and more efficient. SolarKal’s solar advisors can walk you through this process, ensuring your new building is optimized for solar and identifying various cost efficiencies.  Whether you’re a business owner or a real estate developer, integrating commercial solar during construction enhances the economic benefits of this excellent investment opportunity.

Contact an advisor to learn more.

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