Missoula County opposes bill banning government-created solar-ready zones
(Missoula Current) Missoula County is asking the Legislature not to prohibit local governments from zoning some subdivisions for solar and electrical vehicle readiness.
On Tuesday afternoon, Missoula County Climate Resiliency Coordinator Andrew Valainis was one of nine people opposing House Bill 241 in the House Local Government Committee.
HB 241 would prohibit local governments from requiring that new buildings be constructed with the wiring and other components that would allow for upgrades to solar power or electric-vehicle charging.
The sponsor Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, said the bill would keep local governments from adding more costs to Montana’s rising housing prices. That’s why the bill’s only proponent, Sam Sills of the Montana Association of Realtors, said his organization was giving the bill soft support.
But Valainis said installing solar-ready components was cheaper when done during construction rather than having to retrofit a house after the fact. The solar-ready components add only $200 to $1,000 dollars to the construction costs, which ends up being a tiny fraction of a new $300,000 house, Valainis said.
Valainis compared installing solar-ready components to the situation where the National Electrical Code chose to make the installation of three-pronged electrical receptacles a requirement instead of just guidance.
“They decided it was the best thing to do to have grounded outlets. The NEC doesn’t require (three-pronged) appliances to be installed. But they assured that homes were ready for these new technologies that were coming out,” Valainis said. “I see a parallel with solar and batteries and electric vehicles today.”
Ian Lund of the Montana Environmental Information Center said the bill appeared to be an effort for Republicans to limit some voluntary building codes that the Montana Department of Labor and Industry adopted last summer. At that time, the Dept. of Labor and Industry adopted nearly all of the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, bringing Montana in line with modern standards for energy efficiency.
Under Montana law, counties and municipalities cannot impose codes stricter than those of the state, but the department adopted three climate-focused stretch codes that local governments could voluntarily adopt. Two dealt with requirements for solar-ready buildings, including requiring large south-facing roofs and electrical wiring designed to accommodate the conduits and inverters associated with rooftop solar projects that may be added later. Installation of solar panels is not required.
“This bill is a solution in search of a problem. There are no communities forcing residents to install solar or batteries or any of the technologies mentioned,” Lund said. “Solar readiness is not a huge ask. It is simply making sure there is enough space on the roof for solar panels should the new tenants of this building decide to go solar.”
No communities have adopted the stretch codes yet, but three cities - Missoula, Bozeman and Helena - are likely to do so as they try to reach their goals of using 100% clean electricity by 2030.
Two bill opponents were representatives of the electrical vehicle industry who argued that electrical vehicles are only gaining in popularity, so not allowing for the construction of EV-charging technology is ignoring the future. John MacDonald of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said Montana doesn’t have many electrical vehicles yet but he’s seen high demand for electrical charging infrastructure in states where EV’s are taking over.
Charles Denowh, United Property Owners of Montana executive director, stood up as a spokesman for Tesla said he’s concerned about the bill putting restrictions on what the state can require for electrical vehicle infrastructure.
“The state should maintain the flexibility to implement EV-ready building codes to prepare our buildings for the influx of vehicles that we’re expecting over the next 15 or so years,” Denowh said. “Retrofitting parking structures is about four to eight times more expensive than outfitting garages during initial construction. And when we retrofit a parking structure, it’s the residents that bear the cost of that construction. When installed during initial construction, EV-charging infrastructure is generally about 1% of the total construction costs.”
Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, pointed out that prohibiting local governments from requiring the upgrades didn’t stop builders or homeowners from installing the components.
Some legislators asked if requiring installation of components now could cause problems in the future if technological advancements made current components obsolete.
Eric Copeland, Building and Commercial Measurements section chief with the Dept. of Labor and Industry, said that could happen. He said early electrical vehicles required only 20-ampere chargers, but that’s not enough for today’s electrical vehicles.
However, upgrading an electrical system is easier and cheaper if it’s already installed.
“It’s mainly just wiring and conduit. While the building is bare, while there’s just studs hanging around, you can just put wires and conduit here instead of over here,” Valainis said. “It’s the location and the thoughtful location of those things that enable these technologies later. If someone wants to make that decision down the road, they can do that, and it supports their pocketbook.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.