Berkeley Solar Project Serves as Model for New Federal Program

Photo: <b>Solar panels</b> were installed as part of a recent Berkeley program, which funded the installations through increases in the households' property taxes. This project has inspired a new federal energy program, as announced by Vice President Joe Biden.
Anne Marie Schuler/File
Solar panels were installed as part of a recent Berkeley program, which funded the installations through increases in the households' property taxes. This project has inspired a new federal energy program, as announced by Vice President Joe Biden.

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On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden announced a federal energy efficiency program inspired by a Berkeley solar panel financing program.

Berkeley's example will be used as a model for the Recovery Through Retrofit program, which aims to expand green opportunities and energy savings for middle-class citizens. The federal program is in the planning phase, and specific proposals are currently being discussed.

Berkeley's program, which allows participants to pay for the cost of solar panel installation as part of their property taxes, was the first of its kind in the nation and has motivated other cities to become involved in the energy efficiency movement.

Berkeley's pilot program was first developed in January 2008 but began in November 2008, with thirteen households participating.

The up-front cost for installation was $20,000, but the program sought to fund the costs by increasing the annual property taxes for individual participating households by an average of $2,000 over the course of 20 years.

"The program really was the pilot to test the concept of whether you could use property taxes as a way to finance the improvements, and we have done that successfully," said Daniel Lambert, the city's sustainability programs manager.

He added that the success of the program in Berkeley has led other cities, such as Sonoma, San Francisco and Boulder, Colo., to initiate energy efficiency programs as well.

The program ended on Sept. 30, and the results, including the total costs and the change in energy consumption, are still being evaluated. Initial results are expected to arrive in a few weeks.

Lambert said the future of the program hinges partly on the results and whether they will be able to find funding to maintain and expand it.

"We're closely watching what is developing on regional, state and, now, national level," said Gail Feldman, senior manager analyst for the city. "All of the information will be part of the evaluation and (determining) what the next steps might be."

Lambert said the city is focusing on improving energy efficiency in buildings because the electricity required to maintain them "accounts for 50 percent of community-wide greenhouse gas emissions."

Lambert and Feldman said the city is making advisory efforts to help other cities and states set up their own versions of the program.

"We've worked with this group on campus, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, to produce a how-to guide that has been used by many agencies for setting up programs and how to use financing based property tax," Lambert said.

Feldman said city officials spoke last week at a seminar on solar financing programs hosted by the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission attended by firms interested in providing services to energy efficiency programs in addition to representatives from cities and counties.

Danny Kennedy, president of Sungevity, a company that made the first sale and installation of photovoltaic panels using the finance package from the retrofitting program, said the economy and environment will benefit from the program's expansion because of the new "green-collar jobs" it will create and carbon pollution it will reduce.

"We're really creating the green economy everyone is talking about," he said. "It's another great example in how Berkeley has led the nation in the innovations to create a better future."


Contact Melody Ng at [email protected]

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