The Santa Monica City Council recently voted to require single-family, duplex, and low-rise multi-family dwellings built in the municipality to achieve net-zero energy (NZE) performance starting in 2017. According to the Council, this is the first ordinance of its kind in the world—and certainly the first in California.

In a state that prides itself on aggressive climate policy, Santa Monica is leading the way. In 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission adopted a plan requiring all new residential construction to be net-zero energy by 2020. Commercial construction will be subject to the same requirement in 2030. With its new ordinance, Santa Monica will have a three-year head start but will soon be joined by every other city in the Golden State.

Net-zero energy buildings (aka zero net energy, or ZNE, buildings) will help the city of Santa Monica reach its goal of sequestering or offsetting all of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to become “carbon neutral.” The impact that buildings have on climate change is staggering. In the United States, buildings account for roughly 40 percent of all energy usage, largely from non-renewable resources. This begs for more investments in energy-efficient buildings powered by clean energy to eliminate a major source of carbon pollution.

According to Ellen Vaughan, the policy director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), “The technologies and professional expertise to design and construct (net) 'zero energy' houses and buildings are absolutely here now, and prices are falling due to economies of scale. Forward-looking, inclusive policies will ensure that everyone can benefit—home owners and tenants, builders, product manufacturers and suppliers…even utilities. We applaud the Santa Monica City Council for taking this action and urge other communities to follow their lead.”

So what, exactly, is a zero energy building? In 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy devoted a 20-page report to the topic but the agency also offers a brief description: “Generally speaking, a zero energy building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of non-renewable energy in the building sector.”

Santa Monica decided to adopt the definition used by the 2016 California Green Building Standards Code (CALgreen), the state’s green building code. It states that, to qualify as net-zero energy, a building must generate at least as much renewable energy on-site as it consumes during a typical year. The new ordinance does not specify what type of renewable energy must be used, but a separate Santa Monica ordinance, passed in May, already requires all new buildings (including hotels and motels) to include solar photovoltaic installations if their solar exposure makes this feasible.

Santa Monica's solar mandate is the fourth of its kind in California. It requires the installation in new single-family dwellings of a photovoltaic (PV) system with a total wattage of at least 1.5 times the square footage of the dwelling, although other forms of renewable energy can be used as a substitute and smaller installations are allowed in certain instances.

Multifamily dwellings and non-residential buildings (including hotels) are required to install PV systems with a total wattage of at least 2 times the building’s square footage. The inclusion of multifamily dwellings in the solar mandate signals the city's commitment to its climate action plans. Nationally, 61 percent of households live in buildings with 2 or more units.

Santa Monica's solar mandate only applies to new construction. At the state level, existing multifamily buildings have not been overlooked. In late-2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 639 into effect, which set aside $100 million to install solar power technology in low-income, multifamily communities over the next decade.


Author: Dylan Ruan