Gregory Peck | The Alliance to Save Energy even went so far as to hire Gregory Peck in an effort to make a 1979 public service announcement on energy efficiency more appealing.

How Building in California is Different

Everyone knows California is a little different than the rest of the United States. Some people take great inspiration from that fact, and others fear it.

Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread.
Jimmy Carter, 1977

One of the ways California is different is building energy codes and climate policy. In October of 2011, California became the first state to adopt a cap-and-trade policy. The cap-and-trade program is a key strategy, along with a suite of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions policies called the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, or AB 32, designed to reduce the state’s GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

In addition to capping pollution, California is meeting the standards of AB 32 through expanding both energy efficiency and renewable energy. The state’s dedication to efficiency goes back to the 70s when the nation was reeling from the economic ramifications of the Oil Embargo.

Per capita electricity use in California vs. other U.S. states, indexed to 100 in 1960.

Over the last 40 years, California’s per capita electricity use has remained flat while the rest of the country’s use continues to rise, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.  Energy efficiency standards have saved California homeowners literally billions of dollars since enacted in 1977 when the state first adopted energy codes.

California led the nation on efficiency standards then, and now. The state passed a law in 2016 that will double efficiency in buildings by 2030 and the California Energy Commission has adopted revisions to California’s energy code, also known as Title 24, that requires 100% of new homes in California to be Net Zero Energy in 2020.

Net Zero Energy (NZE) homes produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a year. These homes achieve NZE through a combination of energy efficiency and onsite renewables.

While this may be a challenge for some homebuilders, California’s historically mild climate means homes and commercial buildings require less heating and cooling than in many other places. The state is experiencing more extreme heat due to climate change, so this may not always be the case, but the number of NZE buildings is growing in all climate zones across the country.

Some homebuilders oppose this idea of mandating net zero energy, arguing that it’s bad for the economy or bad for the consumer. However, some forward-looking homebuilders and homeowners are already embracing the idea.

Mark Z. Jacobson

Mark Z. Jacobson – Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy program at Stanford University, co-founder of The Solutions Project and of the 100% initiative.

“I chose the BONE Structure technology because it offered prefabricated benefits (reduced waste on the job-site, decreased dust, and minimalized disruption to neighbors) while providing more flexibility for the shape of the house. The net energy efficiency, once the envelope is leak-proof, is due not only to the structure but also to energy sources and appliances. I have no gas going onto the property; instead, all energy comes from electricity. I will use electric cars, heat pumps for air and water heating, and an electric induction stove. The house will be powered by solar panels on the rooftop and energy will be stored using Tesla batteries in the garage.”

– Mark Z. Jacobson

With solar costs going down dramatically and efficiency of appliances going up, designing a net zero energy home is becoming easier. “Custom homebuilders who are developing ZNE homes right now indicate that there are nominal additional costs and that the key issue to achieve ZNE is design and quality construction,” reports the California’s utility PG&E. Recent studies indicate that the efficiency components of a new ZNE home have an incremental cost, after incentives, of just $2-$8 per square foot. Homebuilders who incorporate efficiency and solar in their projects are also eligible for incentives through the state’s New Solar Homes Partnership.

NZE homes will help California meet its GHG emission reduction goals, but it will also save homeowners money on utilities and, perhaps most important of all, give them control over their energy.

And, keep in mind what President Carter predicted in the 70s: Whatever starts in California has an inclination to spread.

Header photo:
The Alliance to Save Energy even went so far as to hire Gregory Peck in an effort to make a 1979 public service announcement on energy efficiency more appealing. (