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California expected to mandate solar panels for new homes

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California is expected next week to mandate that most newly constructed homes include solar panels starting in 2020, reported Fox News (US).

The California Energy Commission will vote on the new solar energy standard Wednesday, Southern California News Group reported.

“California is about to take a quantum leap in energy standards,” Bob Raymer, technical director for the California Building Industry Association, told the newspaper. “No other state in the nation mandates solar, and we are about to take that leap.”

The proposed solar standards would add about $25,000 to $30,000 to the cost of home construction, said C.R. Herro, Meritage Homes' vice president of environmental affairs, according to the report.

But the cost should result in a savings of $50,000 to $60,000 over 25 years, he said.

California has previously imposed mandates, or attempted mandates, on auto emissions standards, retirement savings for private-sector workers, teaching gay history, water usage, vaccines, teen privacy and other issues.

The new solar mandate would apply to all houses, condos and apartment buildings up to three stories tall that obtain building permits after Jan. 1, 2020, the report said.

The mandate originated in 2007 when the state energy commission adopted the goal of making homebuilding so efficient that “newly constructed buildings can be net zero energy by 2020 for residences and by 2030 for commercial buildings,” SCNG reported.

But “new thinking” has made the net-zero goal obsolete, state officials told the news outlet.

“Zero net energy isn’t enough,” said Andrew McAllister, one of five state energy commissioners voting on the new homebuilding standards. “If we pursue (zero net energy) as a comprehensive policy, we’d be making investments that would be somewhat out of touch with our long-term goals.”

If the mandate is approved as expected, solar installations on new homes would also skyrocket, the report said.

But the mandate has its critics.

Bill Watt, a former president of the Orange County Building Industry Association, said the added costs can put home prices further out of reach for many would-be buyers, the News Group reported.

“We’re not building enough housing already,” Watt said. “Why not just pause for a little while, focus on the affordability and housing issues, then circle back?”

Builders would prefer California move slower in imposing the solar mandate, but most nonetheless should be prepared by mid-2020, Raymer said.

On the contrary, environmentalists approve of the new standards.

“The technology is developing so fast, we think the timeline was a bit slow,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

Pierre Delforge, energy efficiency program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the News Group that the proposed update was “another important step toward the environmentally-friendly, healthy and affordable home of the future.”

Texas, in contrast, is taking a free-market approach that former California state Assemblymember Chuck DeVore said is increasing the use of clean renewable energy as well lowering electricity bills.

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Countries around the world are embracing renewable energy like solar and wind power and switching from coal to natural gas. But as they plan to invest billions of dollars in such infrastructure projects, they might also have to pick a side, reported U.S. News and World Report (US).

With the U.S. betting heavily on natural gas and China tightening its grip on the manufacturing of solar panels, choosing one technology over the other might risk alienating – or could end up currying favor with – one superpower or the other.

In short, new solar facilities – while friendly to the global environment – could one day become seen as the anti-American choice.

"It wouldn't necessarily be an overt or even covert push by the U.S., but it would be a conscious decision by a country to say, 'We need to diversify our energy use. Are we going to go the direction of renewables, or are we going to go the direction of importing more oil and gas?'" says Sean Miner, a fellow and associate director of the China-Latin America Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in the nation's capital. "There could be some serious geopolitical advantages for the U.S. to export a lot more LNG.".

Nearly two-thirds of the world's solar panels are made in China, where generous government subsidies and other protectionist schemes slashed production costs by close to 80 percent.

Close to a quarter of the world's natural gas, meanwhile, is supplied by the U.S., where hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – has opened huge shale deposits in much of the Northeast and Midwest. Buoyed by subsidies promoting oil and gas exploration and production, the U.S. has become not only the world's biggest gas producer but is also seeking to ramp up export capacity.

The country last year became a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in six decades, fueled in part by exports of liquefied natural gas that quadrupled last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Industry leaders say they envision a day when container ships loaded with liquefied natural gas become another projection of U.S. political and economic influence, perhaps, if not rivaling, at least easing the grip that pipelines from Russia – the world's second-largest gas producer – continue to hold over European customers.

To be sure, the two sectors are not mutually exclusive: Gas and renewables infrastructure support one another and often serve different purposes, with gas providing steady baseload power, and solar and wind helping add capacity for when demand spikes. They're also used differently, with industry relying on the steady energy provided by gas to power factories and other facilities, and the plastics and petrochemicals sectors also harnessing gas to make resins and other substances.

In terms of investment, meanwhile, the U.S. has seen heavy spending on solar manufacturing, and China has strived to expand its natural gas infrastructure, from building new import terminals to developing sizable deposits of shale gas. Last year, China was the third-largest recipient of U.S. liquefied natural gas, behind Mexico and South Korea. Though bedeviled by technical challenges, it hopes to hit record domestic gas production by the end of this year.

But China's dominance in manufacturing solar panels and America's emergence as the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas may set up a conflict for countries building new energy infrastructure. For developing nations, in particular, reliant as they are on outside investment to shore up their budgets and build out new infrastructure, choosing between importing U.S. gas or buying Chinese-made solar panels – if they're forced to make that choice – could prove especially dicey.

"We may be looking at the world where people would have to make energy infrastructure decisions based on alliance or geopolitical considerations over system-wide optimal solutions," says Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the think tank CSIS. She notes that she's "a skeptic" that this dynamic may happen soon, but says that "people may see this more on the near-horizon."

China, Nakano adds, "has been a consistent supporter of clean energy investment and also innovation, and that could really disadvantage the U.S. remaining in this global supply chain for clean energy."

China is building what promises to be the world's largest solar farm in Pakistan, the U.S.'s on-again/off-again ally in the region. The state-backed China National Nuclear Corp. also won a lucrative contract last year to build a nuclear reactor in Argentina. The projects come amid China's ambitious One Belt, One Road Initiative, unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013, and which has sought to harness infrastructure and other investments to build Chinese influence abroad.

"Not every project they're going to do is successful, but the Chinese are throwing ungodly amounts of money out into the world to invest in infrastructure," says Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. "In some ways the U.S. needs to keep up, because the Chinese are at their prime in terms of overseas investing."

For the time being, though, and particularly in the spheres of gas, solar and other energy sources, there appears enough room in the world's markets – and enough overlapping investment by both countries – to keep gas or solar from turning into a zero-sum competition between the U.S. and China.

"The market is huge overall," Turner says. "The world can absorb both the gas that we're going to try to push and the solar."

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