In April, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to require solar panels — solar photovoltaic or solar hot water — be installed on all new buildings under 10 stories, effective January 2017. This move is to help the city reach its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2020. The rule builds on a state law that requires all new buildings have at least 15% of the roof as “solar ready.”
This makes the City by the Bay the first major metropolitan area to require solar panels on new buildings. In addition, the city is looking into how builders and homeowners can install “Living Roofs,” which are completely covered in plants and growth. This practice is thought to naturally insulate buildings and help mitigate the “heat island effect” many large cities contend with because of the many buildings and building materials they have that retain the sun’s heat.
In 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s administration put together its Sustainable Chicago 2015 Action Agenda to reduce energy use, create good-paying jobs in emerging industries and create a place for healthy lifestyles. Retrofit Chicago focuses on energy-efficiency upgrades; as of December 2015, 60 municipal buildings, 50 commercial and 20,000 residential units are completely retrofitted. Chicago Solar Express gave residents and business owners a one-stop-shop for renewable power, with reduced costs and streamlined permits.
Its 2014 Solar Chicago initiative was developed to make rooftop solar more affordable for Chicago residents — starting at $3.49 per watt, more than a 25% discount off the average market installation costs. It added more than 600kW of solar capacity. And it has a green roof program; as of the fall of 2010, the most recent time period I could find data for, the Windy City had 509 vegetated roofs within the city limits — a total of 5.56 million sq. ft.
Meanwhile, some of our Canadian neighbors are contemplating a ban on residential natural gas heating. The Globe and Mail reported in mid-May that a draft document of Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan noted a phase-out of natural gas for home heating, which is used in 76% of Ontario’s homes. This is part of the province’s goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 15% below 1990 levels by 2020, 37% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.
It said the government would spend $3.8 billion on grants, rebates and subsidies to retrofit buildings and move them off natural gas and onto geothermal, solar or other forms of energy. The plan would require that all new homes built in Ontario in 2030 or later to be heated without the use of fossil fuels. The Ontario government has since backed off on the ban but has yet to publicize its actual plan.
While I’m certainly heartened these cities are taking the initiative to reduce our country’s reliance on fossil fuels as much as we can, I still don’t see the likelihood of all our energy coming from renewables. Because Americans are energy hogs. Because building the infrastructure is costly. Because the coal and oil lobbies will fight to the death to keep their industries alive. Because it’s still cost-prohibitive for the average homeowner or small-business owner to install renewable systems, especially once the federal rebates go away.
Yes, cost is a problem for renewable energy adoption, but I believe there’s a bigger problem not being addressed — human behavior. To get the most benefit from energy-efficient, high-performing indoor comfort systems, people have to change the way they interact with them. Taking a 30-min. shower is still wasting energy and water, regardless of whether you have a solar water heating system.
The greatest payback from a renewable energy system will come from reducing energy consumption. Take the time to manage the expectations of your customers and explain how their systems work. Not in technical jargon, but plain English. If they have a better understanding of their comfort system and how to get the best performance from it, whether it’s powered by fossil fuels or renewable energy, the more satisfied they will be.
And you want satisfied, happy customers, right?