While the media focus on energy policy announcements from Washington or major breakthroughs in energy technology, many local communities have seized the initiative and created programs to reduce greenhouse gasses and become more energy efficient. These grass root developments are not only necessary to achieve emissions targets, but they also provide models for other communities at home and abroad. Within California, which leads the nation in energy policies, Sonoma County has become a leader in setting goals and adopting green energy policies.
Despite the economic downturn, the installation of renewable energy systems recently received a tremendous boost from the Sonoma Board of Supervisors. Building on the adoption of carbon reduction pledges by its nine cities, county activists launched “Solar Sonoma County” last fall and the supervisors immediately announced plans for financing solar projects, as well as plans to streamline permit applications for installations.
In Sebastopol, the City Council lowered permit fees and fast-tracked applications for solar installations. Solar Sebastopol then surveyed all city buildings for potential solar installations, and vendors and city officials contacted property owners about conducting energy audits and arranging financing for solar installations. It also conducted workshops for building inspectors, architects and appraisers to explain low-cost financing opportunities and how to assess increased property values based on solar or wind power systems.
Besides Sebastopol, which leads the way in installing or approving solar projects, the county water agency has also been a leader, installing systems in three sites which generate two megawatts of power. Because water treatment and supply consumes 20% of the state’s energy use, the water agency has set a goal of being carbon free by 2015.
Financing Solar Power
In March, the county approved a program of low-cost loans for installing solar and wind power systems on commercial and residential properties. It will not only encourage owners to go off the electric grid, saving them money and reducing emissions, but will also stimulate the economy by providing new business opportunities and jobs in conducting energy audits and installing renewable power systems.
Loans will also be available for the installation of wall and attic insulation, energy efficient windows, tankless water heaters, hot water pipe insulation, solar thermal devices, even low-flush toilets or systems which conserve water. Since Sonoma County and the state are in the third year of a drought, any reduction of water use will save energy as well as water.
The loans will be available for projects costing $2,500 or more at 7% interest for 5 to 20 years, to be assessed on the property tax bill, and new owners will be responsible for the payments for the life of the loan. The costs of approved projects will also be available for additional tax rebates as well as tax credits offered by the state and federal governments. Only existing buildings are eligible and business owners will need to have an energy audit, while homeowners will be encouraged to conduct an audit.
Since a new state law (AB811) permits cities and counties to issue loan notes to finance energy efficiency projects, $100 million of county funds will be made available to homeowners and businesses who want to finance systems to generate power or reduce power use. The county plans to sell bonds to institutional investors to finance the program, perhaps reducing the interest fee by 1% or 2% if the bond value is over $25 million and the bonds are tax-exempt. Interest paid on the loans should also be eligible for federal income tax deductions.
If all goes according to plan, funds will be available by early May and county surveys of the program have been overwhelmingly favorable. When Sonoma County’s new Energy Independence Program (SCEIP) began to receive applications for energy loans in late March, it took in 181 applications for more than $451,000 in the first three days, ranging in cost from $10,000 to $137,000.
Before submitting applications, property owners can go to a county sponsored web site to assess the cost of improvements versus savings, while commercial property owners will require an energy audit conducted by the public utility, PG&E. Applicants then submit their description of their energy or water-saving improvements, and if approved, the county pays the upfront costs of the improvements and places an assessment lien on the property. The improvements must be permanently affixed to the property and cannot be repairs to an existing system. The life of the loan will be based on the cost of the system, ranging from 5-, 10- or 20-year payment cycles.
Combined with federal and state tax credits for reducing energy use, this loan program, the first of its kind in the state, should help to jump-start the local economy, creating new business and employment opportunities, while reducing the cost of water and energy, and lowering emissions which threaten global climate change.
Green Jobs Sonoma
Last year, Solar Sonoma, along with other community organizations, organized the North Bay Institute of Green Technology-Youth Green Jobs Sonoma to eliminate poverty and preserve the environment by teaching youths and young adults about “cooperative enterprise, environmentally sound agriculture, appropriate technology and conservation”. The program will provide on-the-job training for youth at risk and has set up an 8-week summer workshop to prepare participants for green collar jobs.
Besides training participants to conduct energy audits, install insulation in walls and attics, replace windows, insulate hot water pipes, install solar panels or wind turbines or plumb tankless hot water heaters, the curriculum will combine basic training in math, science and language skills with cultural awareness, leadership training, self-esteem, communication skills and social responsibilities. Sonoma County has a strong agricultural base and training will also emphasize sustainability and protection of the environment.
Thus the county initiative does not just concentrate on energy-efficiency retrofits; it seeks also to develop a generation of skilled and conservation-minded technicians.
- Tony White