Berkeley's Ray of Hope Gets Brighter

Vice President Joe Biden expands idea to use special district bonds to pay for your solar power dreams.
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Vice President Joe Biden expands idea to use special district bonds to pay for your solar power dreams.

Berkeley's stab at making solar installations affordable for homeowners has seen Vice President Joe Biden pinning it up as a model for a national effort.

As Matt Jenkins explained in his profile of Berkley's Francisco DeVries in the July-August issue of Miller-McCune magazine, the California city's program fronts homeowners the money to install the rather costly solar setups through a special utility district bond. The homeowners, presumably using money saved on their subsequent power bills, pays off the cost in an extra charge on their property tax bill. (DeVries, who had been a city staffer at the start of the process, is now president of a company, Renewable Funding, which helps craft these arrangements.)

Berkeley's City Council approved the creation of a "sustainable energy financing district" in November 2007, and cities across the nation — apparently including Washington, D.C. — took notice.

On Monday, Biden released a report — "Recovery Through Retrofit" — which included a recommendation to support municipal energy financing a la the Berkeley model:

"Property tax or municipal energy financing allows the costs of retrofits to be added to a homeowner's property tax bill, with monthly payments generally lower than utility bill savings. This arrangement attaches the costs of the energy retrofit to the property, not the individual, eliminating uncertainty about recovering the cost of the improvements if the property is sold." The report calls for federal and local regulators to hammer out the details for underwriting and protecting lenders and borrowers, while the Department of Energy will dig up an estimated $80 million in seed capital through State Energy Programs and possibly $454 million more through future Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grants.

According to an eight-page white paper on the "Property Assessed Clean Energy" financing program, "If only 15 percent of residential property owners nationwide took advantage of clean energy community financing, the resulting emissions reductions would contribute 4 percent of the savings needed for the U.S. to reach 1990 emissions levels by 2020."

"This is a remarkable validation of what Berkeley did," DeVries told the San Francisco Chronicle's Carolyn Jones. "For an idea that started in Berkeley, it's proven to be very non-ideological."

Biden's remarks Monday came at a meeting of what's been dubbed his Middle Class Task Force, which centers on opportunities for green jobs. "People ask me all the time — how can we expand opportunities for green jobs? How does a green economy help middle class families?" said Biden. His response was to ask the White House Council on Environmental Quality to coordinate the effort to spur green employment, reduce energy costs for the middle class and create entrepreneurial opportunities.

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