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The Opposite Of A Eureka Moment

It’s time for some fast facts about Eureka, California.

Did you know that the sun, on average, shines less than half of all daylight hours in Eureka? Or that this city on the state’s northern coast had 170 days with fog last year? Or that Eureka gets almost as much rain per year as New York City, though unlike New York nearly all of that rain falls in the cool season?

Most people outside Eureka don’t know these things. It seems likely that the five members of the California Energy Commission are likewise ignorant of these facts. So, probably, are most lawmakers in Sacramento. But while most people don’t need to know, it would be helpful if these public officials knew such details about a historic lumber center in their own state.

Or maybe they know but just don’t care that Eureka is a very different place than, say, sun-baked Palm Springs, or even inland Redding, just two hours from Eureka. Whether out of ignorance or disinterest, policymakers think every new home in California – including those in Eureka – should have its own solar panels, to the tune of an additional $8,000 or $10,000 in building costs per home.

This is the kind of dumb, aggressive, ideological and counterproductive regulation that has become the Golden State’s hallmark, making a state that was once a promised land of the American dream a major net exporter of people to other places.

The California Energy Commission recently voted 5-0 to adopt a new set of standards that will require most new residential buildings three stories high or fewer to include solar systems. The mandate, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2020, is a component of Gov. Jerry Brown’s drive to reduce state carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Critics of the commission’s decision pointed out that the costs, about $9,500 per home by the Energy Commission’s own estimate, will be passed along to buyers – this in a state where high housing costs have already been identified as a significant drag on the economy. The commission countered that the cost would be offset by energy and maintenance savings over the decades to follow, which is good news for homeowners who plan to stay in their houses for 30 years or more. It will not be much comfort for everyone else.

There are plenty of good reasons why residences in California, as well as the state collectively, might benefit from continued increases in the use of solar energy. If solar makes sense anywhere, it probably makes sense there – which is all the more reason not to pursue such an expensive, inefficient way of extending solar power’s reach. The state already requires new homes to accommodate solar power arrays for customers who want them, something that is already happening to the tune of about 20 percent of new single family homes in the state. Where individual solar arrays make sense, people and builders will install them by choice. But California regulators distrust choice.

Absent choice, the state could offer further financial incentives. If it so badly wants residents to install their own solar panels, the state could spend its own money to help pay for them. Why make individual homeowners foot the entire bill for a mandate that is intended to benefit not just them (as would be the case with sprinkler systems or other safety features inside the home), but the community as a whole?

And why focus on individual solar arrays in the first place? When America was first electrified, we didn’t mandate that all new homes come with their own generators. Central power stations and shared distribution lines were more efficient and reliable. That may or may not be true today, particularly due to many communities’ resistance to new power lines. On the other hand, Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University, told The Wall Street Journal that in his state and elsewhere in the Southeast, larger scale solar farms are the more common approach.

At a minimum, the trade-offs involved in centralized solar power infrastructure are something for California or for individual home builders to address. The new California regulation also ignores other sources of renewable energy, such as wind, that could be a more logical choice in places like Eureka.

Sometimes an outsider gets the feeling that in California, new rules are made just because the people in public office in California like writing rules. It makes them feel important and socially useful. Or maybe they think they are smarter than their neighbors. I have my doubts about that, and I suspect some folks who live in Eureka do too.

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