It’s nothing less than a new solar system.

A 14-county group, propelled by a $16.5 million federal stimulus grant announced in February, sets up a massive pilot project to loan residents money for a variety of energy conservation home improvements.

The CaliforniaFIRST program builds on the example (and name) of the Berkeley FIRST program, started in that city in 2008, and a Sonoma County program begun last year. The idea is for the municipalities to loan money to home owners, with repayments added to the residents’ property tax bills for up to 20 years.

CaliforniaFIRST, with 140 municipalities signed on, represents about 12 percent of Californians.

Early in the process, a much smaller application was contemplated, potentially involving Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito — three neighboring counties with a history of collaboration on government projects. But other localities wanted in.

“It was surprising to see how many communities were able to step up,” said Ross Clark, climate action coordinator for the city of Santa Cruz. “We thought there would be strength in numbers and having a significant portion of the state in one grant.”

The larger coalition was assembled under the auspices of California Communities, a joint powers authority. The process is open for other municipalities to join, or to set up their own municipal PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) initiative.

“Not only does this help our region reduce greenhouse gas emissions but it also creates valuable trade-related green energy jobs,” said Roger Dickinson, who chairs the Sacramento County Board of Directors.

“The stimulus money will help to buy down the interest rate and to market the program locally,” said Allan Krauter, public information officer of Kern County.
The involved counties cut a swath from Yolo County in the north to San Diego County in the south, pulling in several counties in the Central Valley, Central Coast and East Bay. They are Alameda, Fresno, Kern, Monterey, Sacramento, San Benito, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, Ventura and Yolo.

CaliforniaFIRST is targeting July or August to start taking applications with all counties, hopefully, launching at the same time. But that timetable might be upset, depending on legal review in individual counties of the logistics of financing via individuals’ tax bills.

There have been inquiries from home owners but no waiting lists drawn up yet and no advertising planned until legal hurdles are cleared, said Peter Ucovich, senior planner for the engineering department of Sacramento County.

Some advertising will be statewide. Just as important will be local marketing to address, for instance, different utilities with different rebate programs, Ucovich said.

In Sacramento County, officials are expecting between 0.25 and 0.50 percent of home owners to participate in the first two years. Those projections are based on the experience of solar loan programs in Sonoma County and Boulder, Colo.

“The idea is to make it sustainable,” said Margie Riopel, management analyst for San Benito County. “The application progress will be online.”

Much of the administration will come from CaliforniaFIRST’s program administrator, Renewable Funding LLC of Oakland.

“We’ll be involved at our end to make sure the work gets done properly,” said Riopel. “The planning department will check work and get it signed off. The auditor will be involved to make sure the loans are placed on the tax rolls.”

In addition to financing solar roof panels, CaliforniaFIRST may assist other wind power, water conservation measures, insulation, tank-less water heaters and low-flow toilets.

“Banks don’t normally loan for these types of things and, if they do, the interest rates are kind of high,” said Riopel. “In these economic times, it might not be for everyone, but it will be there.”

A telephone survey last year had 35 percent of people in the Central Coast responding that they’d be interested — a higher rate than in other areas, Clark said.
“There are several limitations why people don’t go out and purchase solar,” Clark said. “It’s a significant cost, purchasing 15 years of electricity up front.”

Some owners are interested in provisions in which the loan repayment obligation stays with the house, even if it is sold to a new owner. “Then you won’t have to sell that loan,” said Clark.

One person watching CaliforniaFIRST with interest chairs the Board of Supervisors of a county with a successful PACE program. “It will be interesting to see how they pull it off, using Sonoma County as a model,” said Valerie Brown, who is also president of the National Association of Counties.

A year into its program, Solar Sonoma County has had $40 million in loan applications.

“That’s a lot of job creation,” said Brown, interviewed after a county board meeting that included a report on the Sonoma program’s progress in the last year. “Our construction employment has increased by 7 percent, whereas our neighboring counties are down 2 or 3 percent. We know it’s making a difference.”

Lance Howland can be reached at