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NORTH BAY—Some contractors hard hit by the dramatic slowdown in home construction in Sonoma County the past three years have shifted to home-improvement projects to find new business, and now they are looking to catch a ride on a gathering wave of work in improving structures to use less energy and water.

These contractors are seeing big potential for lining up new jobs or expanding existing ones via tax credits and utility rebates for installations of photovoltaic-power systems on homes and buildings, financing arrangements through solar-system providers that greatly reduce upfront costs and new property-tax-tied financing available through Sonoma County and soon statewide for solar and energy-efficiency projects.

Potential for work could be there. The Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, which offers financing for energy-efficiency projects paid with property taxes, has received $28.9 million in viable project requests, resulting in 14 contracts signed weekly on average, and funded $10.8 million as of Nov. 2.

Pinnacle Homes of Santa Rosa plans to build custom dwellings and manage projects for other builders when the economy improves. But in the meantime, the company made a major shift in March with the formation of a home-performance division.

"It will be something we will continue to do when we're building houses again," said Dick Dowd, vice president and co-owner. "We expect home-performance work will cover operating expenses annually."

The company purchased $20,000 worth of performance-testing equipment and spent about as much in certification training for 25 members of its work force and that of key specialty contractors, and Pinnacle is now certified by the New York-based Building Performance Institute.

Affiliated contractors are North Coast Energy Systems for heating and cooling equipment, LeDuc & Dexter for plumbing, Coast Insulation, and the Santa Rosa office of PetersenDean Roofing and Solar Systems.

A number of the contractors contacted by the Business Journal for this story have heard that their companies or employees would need to get certification by the Building Performance Institute or other organizations to work on SCEIP-funded projects. However, the program was specifically configured so as many licensed contractors as possible could participate, according to spokeswoman Amy Bolten.

"The federal government is putting similar constraints on projects funded through the American Recovery and Relief Act," she said. "We decided not to apply for that grant specifically not to hamstring our program."

Leff Construction of Sebastopol has made the shift from homebuilder to home remodeler and now is making energy upgrades a big focus, recommending such retrofits to its customers. The design-build orientation of the company is helping the company to offer that option early in the project.

"We have a few larger remodeling projects where energy efficiency can be 20 percent to 25 percent," he said.

The company has completed five SCEIP-funded projects in the past few months, ranging in value from $15,000 to $75,000.

Napa-based general contractor Joe Devine has been keeping his six-employee Devine Construction company busy with a range of smaller residential and commercial projects in Napa County, ranging to the East Bay and Marin County for work on properties held by local clients.

Yet the potential for jobs expanded by energy-performance work is tantalizing. The company has two energy-performance projects in Sonoma County pending SCEIP financing approval.

He's hoping similar financing will become available in Napa and Marin counties. Marin Climate and Energy Partnership is working toward creation of an Assembly Bill 811 district similar to Sonoma County's. Napa County is looking at potentially joining a statewide program launched in October by the California Statewide Communities Development Authority, which could have a pilot program ready this coming spring.

"The industry needs a really good boost for the economy," Mr. Devine said.