The City of Lancaster aims to become the first net-zero city in the world, and took strides toward that goal by mandating solar energy for every new single-family home constructed in the municipality at the start of this year. R. Rex Parris, the Mayor of Lancaster, described his vision to The Planning Report: that the city will serve as an example others follow, so that the nation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help prevent the worst potential outcomes of climate change. With a clear goal, Mayor Parris has united his constituents around the frank reality of climate change.
“Our ultimate goal is to become the first net-zero city in the world, and we’re well on our way. 26 percent of the electrical needs of the city are now solar. We will be at 50 percent by June of this year. This initial ordinance is just that, an initial ordinance. I’ve learned not to try to move the ship of the state with one turn of the wheel. This year, we’ll be adding to that.” -Mayor Rex Parris
The Planning Report: Mayor, it’s reported that you are branding the City of Lancaster “the alternative energy capital of the world.” In furtherance of that aspiration, your city as of January 1 now requires new single-family homes to incorporate solar energy. Elaborate on your energy independence agenda and the significance of the city’s new solar ordinance.
Mayor Rex Parris: Well, it’s a beginning. Our ultimate goal is to become the first net-zero city in the world, and we’re well on our way. 26 percent of the electrical needs of the city are now solar. We will be at 50 percent by June of this year.
This initial ordinance is just that, an initial ordinance. I’ve learned not to try to move the ship of the state with one turn of the wheel. This year, we’ll be adding to that. Right now, it’s one kilowatt of photovoltaic on average for each new home built. We’ll also be announcing next month, along with KB Home, what we call Zero House 2.0, which will be a standard that they’re offering that will be net zero, meaning all the electrical needs will be provided by solar during the day and battery storage overnight.
The first prototype of these homes was built in Lancaster after we got KB Home together with a company from China—BYD. We had a meeting and we all worked on it and were able to produce it, and it’s affordable. You can actually buy a better house if you select this option, because you won’t have any electric bill.
The Planning Report: Share more details on Lancaster’s model residential zone update and how it will impact the housing development community.
Mayor Rex Parris: The goal is to create a template for other cities. Ultimately the world is going to wake up and realize that climate change threatens the very existence of the species. Once people wake up to that fact, they’ll want a template set—so this is what you do to do your part. Each city can do this to lower their carbon footprint.
We started with one kilowatt—on average, every new home has to have at least one kilowatt of solar. This average helps accommodate for the homes that may not be geographically suited for solar. Interestingly enough, the industry’s working with us on this. They recognize that we have to do something about the carbon footprint of these houses.
The Planning Report: Incorporated in the city’s residential zone updates is the following statement: “The purpose of the solar energy system standards is to encourage investment in solar energy on all parcels of the city while providing guidelines for the installation of those systems that are consistent with the architectural and building standards of the city.” Obviously, each one of these words has legal significance. Please share with our readers the process for adoption and the how supportive your constituents are or are not.
Mayor Rex Parris: You had to get everybody’s buy in, and everybody’s part of the process. It wasn’t just the Planning Commission—it was also the building industry and the residents. We have an Architectural and Design Commission. Everybody worked on this for about six months to come up with the wording so that it would be met with the least amount of resistance and receive the most support available. But the stakeholders have now recognized that our goal is to be the first net-zero city, and they seem to be very supportive of everything we’re doing to enforce that.
The Planning Report: The California Energy Commission recently reviewed and approved the city’s residential zone update. Explain the CEC’s review role and what their decision means for scaling your net-zero agenda.
Mayor Rex Parris: It was rather interesting. Because nobody’s ever done this, we didn’t know you needed their approval. We just did it, and they called us up and said, “What are you doing?” It sped through their approval process because that’s what they hope every city will do. But they had some interesting comments. They said, “This is the first time that a city has more stringent requirements than the state is imposing on them.” I thought that was significant. Then, right after we did it, another city did it. I’m hoping it starts the prairie fire.
The Planning Report: A few years ago, Lancaster, a city of 150 thousand people, partnered with SolarCity to launch a successful solar roof financing program. Both the co-founder of SolarCity, a company much in the news this month, and you will be at VerdeXchange Conference this month addressing the promise of distributed generation. Elaborate on this partnership and what it portends for other jurisdictions whose homeowners and building owners are struggling with high energy bills.
Mayor Rex Parris: The business model for that is almost a no-brainer. With any new business model, it’s getting people to accept it and understand it. We were able to provide all of the electrical needs for five city sites and approximately 90 percent of all the electrical needs for every school in the Lancaster and Eastside school districts by partnering with SolarCity. The city is actually making money by providing the funding for these different projects as different schools put them up. We now have temperatures of 115 degrees during the summer, and these solar structures provide shade in our parking lots, which is just a huge factor for the citizens who live here. They love it. Imagine walking into your car and it’s 130 degrees if you didn’t keep your windows down. It’s all a win-win everywhere we look.
The Planning Report: You also attracted BYD to Lancaster and helped them partner with KB Homes. How does BYD, which will also be represented at VerdeXchange’s VX2014, contribute to your city’s energy independence goals? How does BYD contribute to the city and regional economy?
Mayor Rex Parris: The difficulty with solar and wind is the storage of the energy. We haven’t, until now, had efficient batteries to do that. BYD has created a new type of battery—it’s not lithium, and it satisfies the need of being able to store the energy overnight. In fact, you can go take the three houses that we built as prototypes off the grid for four days. That’s the amount of storage capacity we have. And, you can plug in your electric car, and charge it, all from the sun. That only works, though, with the batteries.
Partnering BYD, which is a Chinese company, with KB Home, which is one of America’s largest home builder, was difficult to do. You’ve got language barriers, you’ve got all kinds of regulation barriers, but everybody was willing to do it. Their biggest concern was how long it was going to take to get a permit. We were in the middle of this meeting and really didn’t know if we could do it yet. Nobody’s created an affordable, net-zero house up until then. A lot of people at the table said it couldn’t be done, but what they were most concerned about was how long it was going to take to get a permit.
So we created a process—if you’re putting solar up on an existing house, you can receive a permit over the counter. In every other city that we’re aware of it can take four to six months to get a permit to install solar. That’s absurd because it’s not rocket science. We’ve been doing it since the 70s. It’s an easy process. Government, for whatever reason, has become used to the role of being an obstacle, and used to the role of saying no. What we do differently in our city is the staff is trained to say yes whenever possible.
The Planning Report: About a year ago you, as Mayor of Lancaster, addressed the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. What was your central message, and what are your revised 2014 goals in regards to the scalability of what Lancaster is doing?
Mayor Rex Parris: There do not seem to be any obstacles to the scalability other than the naysayers. What we really need is to educate people as to why climate change is occurring and what the science behind it is; it is industrial waste that is causing the warming of the planet.
In Abu Dhabi, my message was, “I’m not seeing the urgency from the people in this room.” We are now in a fight for the survival of the human race, and that’s not, “The sky is falling.” That’s real science. We know the average temperature is going to increase 3 degrees Celsius. If it increases to 6, we no longer exist. There was a time in the Earth’s history that it was 6 degrees warmer, and there were crocodiles in Canada. That’s the kind of changes we’re talking about. People don’t even know that we’re going to survive at 4 degrees, and the reason for that is because of the wars that would occur.
One of the things that I was bringing to their attention was that we know for a fact that Bangladesh will cease to exist because of global warming. That’s if we do everything right. There are 156 million people in Bangladesh. India has built the longest fence the world has ever seen because they know this is happening.
The Planning Report: Mayor, it might not be immediately appreciated, given your Abu Dhabi message, that you represent a very pro-business constituency. How does your climate agenda resonate with your North LA County voters and contributors?
Mayor Rex Parris: Well, I have a lot of credibility here because right after I got elected, it took two years but we dropped crime 40 percent. And I point out to people, this is really a public safety issue. This isn’t some liberal agenda—it’s the role of government to protect the citizens, and our citizens are not going to be protected unless this gets fixed. We just have to reframe it. For the most part—in my last polling numbers, I got a 94 percent pyd rating and a 70 percent favorable rating.
The Planning Report: Lastly, Mayor, speak to the challenge of under and unemployment in Los Angeles County and your city. How does solar independence contribute to economic growth for Lancaster?
Mayor Rex Parris: In every industry, a center evolves. If you’re going to be a player in that industry, you have to be in the center. If it’s finance, you have to be in New York or London or perhaps Hong Kong; if its tech, you almost have to be in Silicon Valley, because there’s a synergy that takes over. You have to be in the center of it to know what everyone else is doing in order to benefit from it. There is currently no center for alternative energy, and we’re hoping to become that. Lancaster is where you come for the exchange of ideas, and, just as when we sat with BYD, the result will be new business and innovative business opportunities.