JUICE: PACEing The Halls

By Published On: September 10, 2010

When opening a checking account, my new bank was happy to take my money. A few days later, however, it denied me a credit card. According to my credit report, the bank said, I was behind on credit card payments. That was news to me. I soon discovered my credit report included an erroneous list of delinquent payments on personal credit cards I never owned. Ah, Victoria’s Secret. In reality, the only lingerie I own from Victoria’s Secret are anniversary gifts, the rest are from Sears. I’ll spare you other businesses included on the bogus credit list. Unfortunately, I am not the only victim of our debt-ridden nation. The sins of others arising from the onslaught of cheap credit and subsequent foreclosures are drowning bona fide regional lending programs to spur residential energy efficiency and solar rooftop installations. Known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, federal home mortgage agencies rejected municipalities’ plans to use property assessments to finance renewables and efficiency upgrades. The muni tax liens are first in line to collect in the event of a mortgage payment default. The nation’s two big mortgage agencies--institutions that buy packages of mortgages from local lending institutions--are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those organizations were semi-private until 2008 when the federal government took them over. Fannie and Freddie are inundated by underwater mortgages--loans on homes that are well above the current property value, which are unrelated to the regional clean energy programs. The two entities are reported to be saddled with at least $140 billion in debt. Because of the shaky federal home mortgage agencies, the threat of regional clean energy financing programs having seniority in foreclosures burst the dam on PACE funding. As infuriating and disconcerting as it is for many regions to overhaul their efforts to promote solar and energy efficiency it also may not be such a bad thing. The inundation of the Property Assessed Clean Energy financing alternative is pushing state and local representatives to put the program on higher and safer ground. They’re also fighting to resuscitate alternative renewables financing by taking a closer look at new options to promote more affordable solar and efficiency installations to reduce greenhouse gases and fossil fuel use. One strategy, if enabling legislation is signed into law, would be for the California Public Employees Retirement System to invest in regional clean energy programs--an expansion of its $200 billion portfolio. The state, cities and counties also are legally challenging federal mortgage agencies’ “guidance” issued last July. That missive to Property Assessed Clean Energy financiers was the equivalent of a low credit score--what sent me scrambling to find other financing venues. Of note is that the default rate on homes backed by federal mortgages that took on clean energy property assessments is well below the rate for federal mortgages without assessments in Sonoma County and Palm Desert--the two remaining clean energy financing programs. But the most exciting option frustrated PACEers are pushing--when they’re not working the halls to undo anti-PACE action by Freddie and Fannie--is a pilot residential solar subsidy program based on “feed-in tariffs” at rates acceptable to policymakers. Feed-ins would help finance renewables by guaranteeing payments and subsidies for any power saved or sent back into the grid over several years. Palm Desert is taking the lead in this effort by working with state regulators and Southern California Edison to launch a pilot program in Coachella Valley offering standardized contracts for a subsidized long-term price covering up to half the load in the city--about 400 MW, said Jim Ferguson, Palm Desert mayor. The price sought is 28-29 cents/kWh over 20 years. (That rate is well below the tariff used in Germany, which is above 60 cents/kWh.) The proposed subsidy to Palm Desert homeowners, combined with tax credits, make solar cost-effective, according to Ferguson. Utilities don’t like this renewable subsidy because it goes to homeowners’ pockets, not theirs. Regulators are suspicious. A working group of various stakeholders have started meeting to discuss the feasibility of launching a feed-in tariff on a trial basis in Coachella Valley. One was set for September 9. Edison had little to say at this stage of the game. State regulators tout themselves as big green energy promoters. The CPUC should thus direct utilities to make way for the pilot feed-in tariff program. It should use lessons learned to better shape a broader program to ensure a healthy and cost-effective expansion of the clean energy industry. In yet another effort, counties and cities are working with investor-owned utilities to align their home energy efficiency programs. Los Angeles County, which dropped its pursuit of regional clean energy financing, is attempting also to work with Edison to create a joint whole-house energy retrofit program funded by ratepayers and the Department of Energy. However, representatives from the public and private agencies do not appear to be on the same page. State and federal regulators should insist that Edison and other private utilities work with their muni counterparts to dovetail their efficiency and renewable energy programs as a condition of receiving public money. The Southern California whole house retrofit program--as well as the state-wide one in the pipeline--also are part of the 2010-12 energy efficiency plans for Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric approved by the CPUC and backed with $3 billion in ratepayer funds. Like the bright side to a bad credit report, succeeding on the alternative energy financing front will ensure a diversity of players, programs, and options to better ensure a bright green and lasting future. Editors’ note: California Current, Energy Circuit Inc.’s weekly publication, celebrates its 7th Anniversary this week. We toast all of you dear readers for making us bigger and better with age. We also renew our vows to continue providing in-depth reporting and unique analysis of our fascinating and fast-paced energy world. No lacy anniversary gifts please.

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