by John Lawrence
Everywhere in San Diego you see solar panels being installed on single family homes and large businesses. But hardly anywhere do you see them going in on the large number of local apartment buildings and condos. Now the Department of Energy SunShot initiative has made a $712,000. grant to San Diego's Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) to study the reasons and do a pilot project to implement solar in such projects. Condos and apartment buildings represent a huge amount of rooftop real estate which could be gathering in the sun's rays to provide energy to the occupants within.
For example, the condo project I live in, of which I'm President of the HOA, has three buildings each of which has approximately 6000 square feet of flat roof on which solar panels could easily be installed. There are 48 units here. In addition there is a smaller building which houses the rec room and laundry which has about 1000 square feet of flat roof. The only things currently up on the roofs are the individual AC units for the individual condos. These buildings are located in El Cajon where the intensity of sunlight is high with very few cloudy days the whole year.
CSE will supposedly study the barriers to solar implementation by condos and apartments. I can tell you what they are right now since I have been on a quest to have solar installed at our complex to no avail. The way the laws are written, there is no way to pay the upfront costs that solar implementation would entail. It would require approval by every owner within the condo project and a special assessment to each of them to pay for it. This makes it for all intents and purposes impossible. Similarly, a loan from a bank or credit union is not practicable either.
Also, the cost of a solar installation cannot by law be added to the monthly HOA fees since it is a capital project, and monthly HOA fees can only go to certain types of maintenance such as painting, pool maintenance, janitorial costs etc. The state laws and local ordinances are very specific about how monies can be spent in a condominium project.
Most homeowners have a lease option. That means they lease the panels from the company that installs them. The beauty of this arrangement is that there are no upfront costs and the monthly payments on the lease are less than their monthly payments to SDGE. This makes it a no brainer for detached single family homes. Unfortunately, solar installation businesses don't seem to have a leasing option available for condo projects. We've contacted several installers and this is the case with all of them. I have urged them to make one available but so far without much success.
While California continues exponential growth in solar energy with rooftop system installations more than doubling in the past two years, condos and apartments are being left out of the progress in replacing fossil fuel energy with renewables. Originally, we were thinking of just enough solar installation to cover the electricity needed for common area needs such as lighting, laundry area, rec room HVAC, sprinkler system and vehicular gate. We didn't think it possible that we could implement solar for all the individual owners who are billed individually by SDGE. However, CSE is looking into just this possibility which would make solar installation that much more desirable as it would not only save the HOA money but it would save all the individual homeowners money.
This is from CSE's website:
The project’s goal is to expand use of a special utility billing arrangement, called virtual net metering, that allows the “virtual” sharing of energy generation credits from a single solar system among multiple tenant accounts with separate meters, such as apartment buildings, commercial offices and shopping malls. This ability to share the credits while bypassing the need to connect the solar power to every meter greatly improves the value proposition of installing solar for property owners as well as providing tenants with direct utility bill savings.
“Nearly all of the residential solar energy installations in California have been made on single-family housing, yet a third of the state’s residents live in multi-unit dwellings, and in addition, there are tens of thousands of multimeter commercial facilities,” said Ben Airth, a senior manager at CSE. “The regulations that permit virtual net energy metering were put into effect in California several years ago, but for a variety of reasons both solar contractors and property owners have not taken advantage of the potential for energy and cost savings.”
Airth said that CSE estimates there are more than quarter of a million properties in California that could take advantage of shared solar resources, yet less than 100 are doing so now within the service territories of the state’s three large investor-owned utilities.
If the lease option were widely available to condos and apartment buildings, solar energy implementation in California would surge to new heights. This would also provide many new jobs as demand for solar would skyrocket. I have emailed CSE to promote one of their pilot projects at my cond complex in El Cajon. In addition I could chronicle the project right here on the San Diego Free Press. This would help not only to disseminate information regarding solar implementation in multi-unit dwellings, but El Cajon is probably the most sun intensive locale in the whole state of Califiornia.
Currently, many communities are mandating that solar be a part of new developments. Cities like Tucson, AZ, Carbondale, CO and Chula Vista, CA have developed requirements or incentives for new homes to be “solar ready.” Since new apartment buildings and condo projects will probably be a large part of new developments as many college graduates these days are not in a position to buy detached single family homes as a result of the load of student loan debt they are carrying, it makes sense to install multiunit, multitenant shared metering.
CSE has also been active in advising local communities in how to streamline and simplify its permitting procedures for solar installation so as to speed up and reduce the costs of that part of a project. The California Solar Permitting Guidebook addresses provisions of the Solar Permitting Efficiency Act (Assembly Bill 2188) signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. California cities and counties must adopt streamlined solar permitting processes by Sept. 30, 2015. California is the first state to mandate standardized solar permitting processes.
Incentivising solar installation by means of relevant financing plans for condos and apartment buildings is an important aspect of future solar development. Solar needs to become ubiquitous in San Diego and in California in general. Unlocking practical financing alternatives will help make it so. Let's hope that one of the pilot projects to make this happen occurs right here in San Diego. In particular did I mention that a particular condo project in El Cajon would be ideal?