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California homebuilders rush to avoid solar mandate

Permits issued for new single-family homes soared 56 per cent in December 2019 from the year before

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The solar mandate is the first in the nation and part of a wide-ranging push by the most populous US state to get all its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. California's installed residential solar capacity is expected to grow about 65 per cent this year.

Seattle

CALIFORNIA has struggled to produce enough housing for decades, the result of high construction costs and decades of government policies that have discouraged development. So why did homebuilder permits jump at the end of last year?

The answer, according to an industry group: A state mandate that requires almost all new homes to have solar power from this year.

Permits issued for new single-family houses soared 56 per cent in December 2019 from a year earlier to 5,526, said the Construction Industry Research Board (CIRB), a body that is part of the non-profit California Homebuilding Foundation.

That followed a 19 per cent increase in November and capped a year when permits were down 2 per cent overall.

The numbers probably understate the burst of activity, said Bob Raymer, technical director of the foundation's affiliate, the California Building Industry Association.

That is because they represent only permits that have been issued, and not those that are pending. Homebuilders, he said, had an incentive to get their paperwork in before the end of the year so they could avoid costs associated with the solar mandate.

There can be several months between when a permit application is submitted - which determines the rules a builder must comply with - and when it is approved.

"We should continue to see some rather high CIRB numbers for the next few months," he said.

The solar mandate is the first in the nation and part of a wide-ranging push by the most populous US state to get all its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2045.

The requirement is part of why California's installed residential solar capacity is expected to grow about 65 per cent this year to roughly 1,700 megawatts.

Even so, it has been criticised for adding a major upfront expense for homebuyers in a state where the median single-family house costs US$615,000, more than double the national average.

State officials estimated the solar mandate would add an average of about US$9,500 to the purchase price of a home, while noting that reduced energy costs could yield a net savings of US$19,000 over 30 years.

No-money-down solar leases are also available.

The jump in permits probably does not say much about the long-term housing production trends in California, said Jeff Langbaum, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.

"This is housing people would have built anyway," he said. "You still need some sort of major change in terms of the amount of long-term construction activity - single-family, multi-family, affordable, across the board - to really fix the issue." BLOOMBERG