Sonoma County program drawing homeowners; commercial projects on tap

NORTH BAY – Cary Buxton, an estimator for Second Generation Roofing in Santa Rosa, has already seen the impact of the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program on his business.

The program, which was made available to residents and building owners in Sonoma County March 25, allows property owners to make energy improvements to their buildings through loans from the county that are payable on the owners’ property tax bills.

Assembly Bill 811, which allows for cities and counties in California to create financing districts for energy improvements, is how this financing was made possible. The Sonoma County Water Agency and the Auditor-Controller Treasurer-Tax Collector run the program.

Mr. Buxton said he has been marketing directly to customers using handouts from the SCEIP.

”For a certain group of today’s homeowners who are in dire need of a roof, SCEIP is an absolute blessing,” he said. "I have between 30 and 40 cool roofs in contract since this program launched,” he said. “And I am not even doing the kind of marketing I want to.”

The program is not just targeting homeowners, though up until recently, most of the applicants were.

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“The program is getting busier every week,” said Amy Bolten, public information officer with the Sonoma County Water Agency.

There have been more than $21.5 million in applications made, and there are $11 million in contract.

As of Oct. 1, $8.5 million have been funded.

“Our goal was to have $10 million funded by Oct. 1. It would have been the break-even point,” she said.

But at $8.5 million, she is still happy.

“We are not going anywhere,” she said.

There has been a rise in requests from commercial properties, Ms. Bolten said, after lenders' concerns about liability were addressed.

Lenders were concerned that if the owner of a building went into default, they would be liable for the remaining part of the loan.

But in reality, the bank would only be responsible for the defaulted taxes, Ms. Bolten said.

“From our perspective, this will be great for people having to comply with AB 1103,” she said.

AB 1103 was signed into law in 2007 and is set to be implemented in 2010. It will require commercial property owners to provide 12 months’ worth of comparable energy-use information to prospective buyers or full-building tenants as well as financiers. It was originally to take effect for all properties Jan. 1, but draft implementation regulations from the California Energy Commission last month proposed a three-year phase-in period, starting with the largest buildings in July 2010.

Of the commercial buildings already in contract or funded or in talks, the Santa Rosa Plaza is getting a cool roof and requested half a million dollars.

Amy’s Kitchen got $2.5 million to do a cool roof as well.

And Kunde Winery is ready to sign contracts as soon as the details are worked out for a solar hot water system, Ms. Bolten said.

Much of the requests have been for solar and windows.

Craig Lawson of Pinnacle Homes said he hopes people will focus some attention on improving efficiency rather than just renewable energy.

“If you take care of all the inefficiencies in your home, you can get a smaller solar array,” he said.

“People should be focusing on fixing the inefficient faucets and toilets and shower heads and ducts and insulation. And lighting,” he continued.

Ms.  Bolten said that what she finds most surprising about the program is the response.

“I have worked on a lot of programs that I think are great, and then there are no takers,” she said. “There have been 626 applications.”

Likely, she said, the lack of response on typical government programs is due to people’s trepidation of having to navigate through a lot of red tape.

The program and how it functions has already gone through some changes. They have been getting feedback by meeting with contractors regularly who tell them how they can improve things.

Marin County is close to putting together its own program, and Napa County has begun to discuss the idea.

Santa Barbara, Placer, San Mateo, Trinity, Los Angeles and Imperial counties are all in discussions to get their own programs together.

And 14 states have implemented similar legislation.

With the $21.5 million already signed for, there is still roughly $80 million left, enough to spur significant job creation.

“The thing I am most excited about,” said Ms. Bolten, “is the job creation.”