Water Agency offers new energy financing to schools and nonprofits

SONOMA COUNTY -- In an effort closely watched by school, government and nonprofit groups around the state, the Sonoma County Water Agency is working to launch a first-in-California bond financing program that will allow millions of dollars in energy efficiency upgrades to schools and other public facilities at a time of intense budgetary rationing.

[caption id="attachment_62921" align="alignright" width="360"] Amy Bolten, Jennifer Bruneman, Jamie King[/caption]

Known as Sonoma County Energy Financing, the program requires participating energy service companies to underwrite any predicted savings to energy costs before beginning a facility upgrade. The approach guarantees that school districts and governments will have a predictable pool of money for servicing a related municipal bond, avoiding any out-of-pocket expense for new equipment or improvements while creating immediate savings though lower maintenance costs.

Though the precise cost savings possible in Sonoma County are not yet known, planners point to the groundbreaking "Sustainable Energy Utility" that pioneered the approach in the state of Delaware. Since launching in 2007, the program has generated $73 million in guaranteed, low-interest financing for facility upgrades, $145 million in long-term savings and more than 900 construction and engineering jobs.

Many of the leaders in the Delaware program have been enlisted to help launch what planners call a "scaled-down" version in Sonoma County. More than 10 school districts representing nearly 100 schools have expressed interest, with room for further additions that could include public buildings under various management and nonprofit facilities like hospitals, according to the water agency.

"A lot of our facilities have newer construction, but that doesn't mean that those facilities can't be updated," said Jennifer Bruneman, director of maintenance and operations for the 23-campus Santa Rosa City Schools. The district has expressed interest in the program. "It's a dual-purpose need -- getting old equipment that's not working so well off of our sites, as well as saving money on our PG&E bill."

Work to develop the financing structure began last October, a collaboration between the water agency and the nonprofit Foundation for Renewable Energy & Environment. Born from founders of the Delaware program, the foundation brought with it much of the contractual framework necessary to implement a similar program in Sonoma County and a list of national energy service companies willing to financially guarantee their work.

"We wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel," said Amy Bolten, a spokeswoman for the water agency's Energy Resources Group and coordinator of the financing program. The proposal has been lauded by regional contractors, and "while our direct contracts will be with national companies, the vast majority of our work will be with local guys."

By combining a large volume of work into a single financing mechanism, Ms. Bolten said that organizers hope to reach a critical mass favored in municipal bonding. Current estimates range from $30 to $50 million, with an issuance expected in May and construction in early June.

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