NORTH BAY – Following Sonoma County's adoption of an energy improvement program to fulfill state measure AB 811's dictates, Napa, Marin and Solano counties are studying the issue.

The measure, passed in August of 2008, authorizes all cities and counties in the state to designate areas within which willing property owners can enter into contractual assessments to finance the installation of distributed renewable generation (solar or wind systems), as well as energy-efficiency improvements (double-paned windows, insulation, etc.).

The improvements must be fixed to the property owner's residential, commercial, industrial or farmland property. Low-cost loans, generated by the county or city adopting the plan, can cover the initial installation and be paid off as an item on the owner's property tax bill.

The goal of the measure is to enable significant reductions in energy use, primarily by upgrading buildings and transportation, which have been identified as the largest sources of emissions leading to greenhouse gases.

Sonoma County, the first county to adopt the measure in California, was able to put together a fund to supply the loans by selling bonds. The Sonoma County Energy Independence Program has already contracted for $19 million in loans and paid out $13 million.

Sonoma County borrows the money at 3 percent interest and lends it at 7 percent, using the difference to pay program costs and employing bonding to recoup funds.

 Other North Bay counties, without Sonoma's population and strong general fund, are struggling with ways to finance the loans.

"We've applied for grants from the California Energy Program," said Dana Armanino of the Marin County Sustainability Team.

California is disbursing funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"Marin County is very interested in putting together a fund. We're applying to other granting agencies as well," said Ms. Armanino.

In Napa, Steve Lederer, director of the Napa County Environmental Management Department, said that while Napa is determined to implement AB 811, the county will not pursue grants.

"The state program gives a small amount of money up front, and then you have to figure out how to make it sustainable," he said.

For Napa, self-funding is not an option. Instead the county is waiting for the state to put together an investment fund.

The California Statewide Communities Development Authority has launched a statewide CaliforniaFIRST program, funded by the state, Renewable Funding and the Royal Bank of Canada Capital Markets.

Napa hopes to be one of a half-dozen localities chosen in the state as pilots for the effort, which would be a solution for Mendocino and Lake counties as well.

Solano County is exploring implementing AB 811 along with a number of energy-saving initiatives, said Daryl Halls, executive director of the Solano Transportation Authority.

"AB 811 is currently being discussed by the Solano County Board of Supervisors," he said.

At its September meeting, the board authorized the establishment of the Solano County Energy Conservation Steering Committee to come up with guidelines for implementation of a County Energy Conservation Program by March 2010.

Some are speculating that Solano will be the second California county after Sonoma to adopt a similar program. Aggressive solar installers that have established branches in regions where AB 811 is implemented are already planning branches in Solano, according to one solar company.