The California Energy Commission adopted new building standards this month that will require solar panels on new homes in 2020. (Courtesy photo)

California mandates its way to an even worse housing market

California housing prices are through the roof. The state’s median home price is already more than double that of the national average. In large part, this is due to restrictive zoning and a closed-minded attitude toward reform that has left the state with the second-lowest rate of housing density in the country. The last thing California should be doing is creating unnecessary regulations that make homes even more expensive.

Of course, that’s exactly what California is doing.

A decree handed down from the California Energy Commission requires that all new homes in the state be built with solar panels on the roof, though there are exceptions for homes in shady areas. The only recourse to a house that won’t have a surcharge for solar panels might be deep in the redwood forest.

Putting solar energy panels on your roof is not cheap. California’s government estimated that the average home would cost $25,000 to $30,000 more due to the solar mandate, but suggested that consumers would save $50,000 to $60,000 in energy bills over 25 years. Overall, the government estimated, homebuyers would save a net of $23 per month. That’s a nice sentiment, but there’s a few problems.

The government did not take into account the fact that most people (especially people contending with the out-of-control housing market in California) don’t buy houses in cash — they get mortgages. Taking into account increased interest costs, that net savings of $23 per month disappears, leaving homebuyers with a net $11-per-month cost.

The other problem with this calculation is that not every Californian home is “average,” which is a major problem with these across-the-board mandates. Currently, only 15 to 20 percent of California homes have solar panels installed. It’s not because Californians hate money or revere the Sun God too much to harvest his energy. It’s because not every home benefits the same way from installing solar panels. What makes sense economically for one family may make no sense at all for another.

It’s also important to note the secondary effects here as well. Artificially increasing the demand for solar energy by mandating its consumption will drive up the price, acting as a subsidy for the solar industry. It doesn’t help that those who will pay the price of higher utility bills are primarily the poorest Californians, as increases in utility bills are regressive. In effect, California is taxing its poorest residents to provide a subsidy toward a politically favored industry.

Does this mean that Americans would be foolish to install solar panels on their homes? Not at all. For many Americans, solar is the most efficient way to power their homes. Even after controlling for the effect of subsidies, the price of solar power has dropped dramatically over the last 10 years. Yet this should just function as proof to environmentalists that the government does not need to put its thumb on the scale and punish the poorest Californians to convince people to transition to renewable energy sources; it’s happening anyway as technology makes renewables more economically viable.

Policies such as this make California appear dead set on keeping its housing prices unnecessarily high. Yet there is no need for California to continue shooting its residents in the foot like this. The state should avoid unnecessary taxes on its poorest residents, direct or no, in order to subsidize industries that don’t need it.

Andrew Wilford is a policy researcher with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tax research and advocacy at all levels of government.

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