JUICE: Solar Attraction

By Published On: November 15, 2013

The lure of a solar rooftop increases with the continued drop in photovoltaic panel costs and recent legislative security for California’s favorable net metering rates. But the disparity between the upfront cost and my relatively modest electricity use in my insulation-challenged Berkeley abode keeps me tied to the mast. I may feel differently if there was a public program that allowed the steep initial retrofit cost to be repaid over time by a line item on my property tax bill in my environmentally-conscious city. If I lived in Sonoma or Sacramento, I’d be sorely tested. They are among the cities and counties with Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs in their tool boxes for lowering their carbon profile, increasing local renewable energy and reducing energy waste. Under them, the renewable and efficiency retrofit installation tab is shouldered by the municipality in exchange for low interest 10 to 20-year property assessments. Many of those residential clean energy financing programs in and outside California, like Berkeley’s pioneering efforts, burned out after the Federal Housing Finance Agency objected to the financing program. The agency, which was drowning in red ink, threatened in July 2010 to force homeowners in PACE programs who had federal mortgages to pay off their home loans or else. From the several PACE advocates I spoke with, it appears that after more than three years since its dictum, the roar of the parent agency of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has been little more than a squeak. Luckily, it has yet to follow through on its threat to require any mortgage be paid off if a PACE lien is on the property. That doesn’t mean cities and counties with existing and planned residential upfront retrofit financing programs ignore FHFA’s threat. It is partly why commercial PACE programs are more widespread than residential ones. FHFA covers only home loans. Matthew Marshall, Redwood Coast Energy Authority executive director, told me that whether a potential PACE program in Humboldt County is limited to commercial property owners is likely to turn on county officials “initial tolerance for risk.” The residential clean energy financing programs that survived the Financing Agency’s storm, and those that have subsequently launched, provide full disclosure to interested homeowners about the agency’s stated position. Furthermore, many of the participating households in the regional PACE programs don’t have federal loans. The residential PACE programs in California that have thrived include Sonoma and numerous cities working together in Western Riverside County. An expansion of the financing program launched in the City of Sacramento earlier this year was announced last week. The private company handling the financing and program administration, Ygrene Energy Fund, plans to expand residential and commercial PACE financing into Sacramento and neighboring Yolo counties. Other cities and counties, including Arcata and the counties of Mendocino and Humboldt, are seriously considering offering PACE financing to residential and commercial property owners to advance green energy building retrofits, save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “The next step is a detailed plan,” said the Redwood Coast Energy Authority’s Marshall. Los Angeles County put on the street a request for capital backing for its commercial PACE program. Offers are due in mid-December. While PACE advocates in the various cities seek to expand green energy financing, they do not agree on the role of energy efficiency. Western Riverside County’s programs, which had providing $106 million to finance 5,897 home retrofits as of last week, get considerable flack for not requiring energy audits pre-installation, and post installation savings performance measures. “It is a cookie cutter approach,” said Larry Goldberg, Executive Director of Plan It Green in Arcata. Slapping sexy solar panels on an energy inefficient home is wasteful. It also fails to advance the state’s emphasis on efficiency. Billie Rafferty, a spokesperson for a private entity running Western Riverside’s residential PACE program, said decisions about energy audits and efficiency benchmarks are made by the homeowner. “We are strictly a financing tool.” My solar siren just got muted.

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