Rebuilding better homes for Northern California wildfire survivors

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Powering the Bottom Line

Barry Vesser leads the Business for Clean Energy program for the Center for Climate Protection. Read more of his columns at nbbj.news/powering.

After the devastation of the fires last October, most people in the affected areas are understandably eager to rebuild as quickly as possible.

At the same time, climate and clean energy advocates in the community would like to see those homes rebuilt using state-of-the-art technology that would provide a better experience for homeowners and have a much lower impact on the environment.

In the immediate aftermath of the fires, the question was: How could this be done without adding time and additional expense to the homeowners already struggling with a complex and burdensome process?

Enter Sonoma Clean Power (SCP). Rachel Kuykendall, a program manager at SCP, says that they really wanted to do something meaningful for residents right after the fires. They got input from multiple stakeholders in the community and went to many neighborhood block captain meetings to hear directly from the people that they wanted to serve.

They came up with a vision of rebuilding homes to a higher standard of energy efficiency that would be lower cost for the homeowners to operate, be more comfortable, and safer as the result of not needing natural gas for heating or cooking. They wanted to provide a financial incentive to customers to cover the incremental cost of exceeding current Title 24 efficiency standards, and also to go further by promoting “zero carbon” homes that have all services and appliances electrified (with no need for natural gas) as well as an incentive for solar combined with energy storage.

They quickly realized they would need partners to do this at scale, so they called up PG&E, which operates the existing California Advanced Homes incentive program, about working together. The early negotiations were complicated, but Kuykendall said that they kept at it, because both entities wanted to make it work.

Each partner brought something critical for a successful program to the table. At the recent Business of Local Energy Symposium in Sacramento, Sonoma Clean Power’s CEO Geof Syphers stated that SCP—with its public board and on-going community outreach—is more connected to the local community than the PG&E.

They can also be more nimble and innovative than the large utilities and can implement some types of programs that the utilities would be prohibited from implementing by the California Public Utilities Commission.

On the other hand, he pointed out that “we don’t have trucks, we don’t have the kind of engineers that PG&E has, nor the detailed system data needed to plan an all-electric service. PG&E is also better positioned to understand how the distribution grid integrates with the transmission grid.”

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District also joined the partnership to support a few specific project elements like heat pumps for heating and cooling, heat pump water heaters, and solar that address their priority of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area.

Currently, approximately $30 million in funding is available to support what is now called the Advanced Energy Rebuild program. They want to serve as many eligible people as they can in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Kuykendall estimates that the program will serve between 900 to 1,200 households, depending on which options people select.

There are two options for homeowners.

Under the first option, homeowners receive a $7,500 incentive to exceed current energy efficiency standards by 20%, to install an electric vehicle charging station (equipment is provided free of charge) and design the roof for additional loads associated with solar panels.

Powering the Bottom Line

Barry Vesser leads the Business for Clean Energy program for the Center for Climate Protection. Read more of his columns at nbbj.news/powering.

If they want to add solar combined with energy storage, there is an additional $5,000 incentive; alternatively, that can also be used to pre-purchase 20 years of 100% local renewable power (SCP’s EverGreen service).

Homeowners who are willing to go all-electric can also receive a $12,500 incentive, which adds heat pumps for heating and cooling, induction cooking, and all-electric Energy Star appliances to the requirements of the first option – plus the same optional incentive on solar.

Kuykendall says that enrollment started in May and it has been slow so far, mainly because a project has to have a building permit before it can participate in the program, but that they are getting hundreds of emails a week inquiring about the program. They are also educating contractors and their subcontractors about building a zero-carbon home through trainings at the North Coast Builder’s Exchange.

She said that PG&E already had educational resources on Zero Net Energy building that were easily adapted for this need, and that PG&E’s participation has been indispensable in implementing the program, helping with the needed energy modeling for the homes, and providing the system for getting checks to program participants.

SCP has increased their staffing to design and implement this project. They are ready to serve customers and if they get sufficient demand, Kuykendall said that they will try to find additional funding. If residents take advantage of this unique program, within a couple of years Coffee Park, Fountain Grove, and other neighborhoods devastated by the fires could become the greenest in the county.

Homeowners interested in learning more about this program can go to https://sonomacleanpower.org/advancedenergyrebuild or send an email to programs@sonomacleanpower.org.

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