Builders catching on to the appeal of solar-powered homes

With demand for energy-efficient homes surging in Southern California, home builders are producing more houses with rooftop solar power systems than ever before.

About 4,000 new homes were built with a rooftop solar power system last year in California alone, SunPower Corp. announced Wednesday. That figure nearly doubled year-over-year from 2011 to 2012, the company reported.

SunPower, headquartered in San Jose, designs and builds solar panels and systems. The company recently installed its 10,000th system on a home near San Diego. 

Home buyers in Southern California are starting to realize how much they could save by purchasing a new home with a solar power system installed on the roof, said Matt Brost, SunPower's national sales director.

Depending on the size of the system, homeowners could nearly eliminate their electric bills each month, Brost said. He estimated that the cost to install a power system would add between $50 and $100 to an average mortgage payment each month. 

"Builders are generally finding that buyers are willing to pay for this," he said. “Most builders you talk to will tell you that this will become a standard feature."

This comes as welcome news for the California Energy Commission. 

Andrew McAllister, a member of the commission, said the growth in energy-efficient homes reduces the region's carbon footprint, makes the state more energy-independent and benefits the local economy by creating construction and manufacturing jobs. 

"I think it's huge," McAllister said. “It’s not that we want to deprive the utilities of revenue; we just want to help the people do what’s in their best interests.”

Another benefit is that a new level of competitiveness has been created in the real estate and home-building markets, he added. 

“I think you're finding home builders wanting to distinguish themselves in this new homes market,” McAllister said. 

Los Angeles-based KB Home started building houses with rooftop solar power systems two years ago, and has since built 1,500 homes with the additional power system, according to Steve Ruffner, the builder's president for the Southern California district. 

Ruffner said KB Home offers different options for home-buyers in the market for a new energy-efficient home. There is a standard system -- referred to as the "base system" -- that typically saves the average family between 20% and 40% on their monthly utility bill. 

Homeowners can upgrade and purchase more panels for their homes at any time, he said. Homeowners save more money on their electric bill if they have a larger system. 

About 70% of the houses KB Home builds today come with at least the standard solar power system, Ruffner said. The demand for the product has been huge, he noted. 

“It’s such a no-brainer for our customers when they see the value proposition when they come to our communities," Ruffner said. “Our customers also believe that it adds to the resale value.”

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Twitter: @CaleOttens

cale.ottens@latimes.com