SACRAMENTO (AP) — California homeowners forced to rebuild because of a wildfire or other natural disaster would not have to install solar panels under a bill that has cleared the state Legislature.
California is the first state in the country to require new homes to install solar panels. The new rules take effect Jan. 1. The California Energy Commission says solar panels can add about $9,500 to the cost of a new home.
Thousands of homes across the state have been destroyed or damaged in recent years because of wildfires and other natural disasters. A Northern California wildfire in 2018 killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, including most of the town of Paradise.
New data released this week shows insurance companies declined to renew 350,000 home insurance policies in areas at high risk for wildfires since the state began collecting data in 2015. The data also showed new and renewed insurance policies increased in the fire-risk areas during the same period.
Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, whose district includes areas affected by wildfires, wrote a bill that would exempt the solar panel rules for victims of disasters. The bill would only apply to areas where the governor has declared a state of emergency prior to July 1, 2020. The exemption would expire in 2023.
The Senate approved the bill on Thursday. It now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
“This isn’t a debate about solar and whether we should have it,” Dahle said. “This is a debate about getting people who lost everything back in a home and rebuilding their lives.”
But Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener opposed the bill, arguing the exemption is too broad. A legislative analysis of the bill noted the governor has made more than 30 disaster declarations in recent years for severe storms or wildfires that have affected 57 out of 58 counties. He also objected to the notion that solar panels increase the cost of home ownership.
“Solar pays for itself. It allows people to have more inexpensive energy and not to be tied to our failed investor owned utility model,” he said. “This is, I think, an important way of lowering costs, not increasing costs.”
Sen. Henry Stern noted homeowners already have ways to avoid the rules, including if they are building in an area shaded by lots of trees, hills or other structures — which would include much of the town of Paradise.
Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said she has solar panels on her home, and her energy bills are $11 each month. But she said she voted for the bill because she represents many people who lost their homes in disasters and are “agonizing over where they are going to live.”
“I don’t think this will undermine our solar program,” she said. “We have to recognize the humanity of the people who have suffered from this.”