Government loans advocated to spur energy efficiency
By Nao Braverman
With rising concerns about climate change, and the increasing cost of electricity, some of Ojai’s environmentally conscious residents are turning to solar power. But while the new energy-efficient technologies often save money and resources in the long run, not everyone can afford the pricey start-up cost.
To achieve California’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by the year 2020, decision makers may need to help make solar technology more accessible.
One solution, already being considered by several other California cities, is a government loan program which would finance the initial costs of solar panels for property owners who agree to pay it back over time in installments, with an assessment on their property. Such a program could be considered for Ojai, though not until the city is in a better financial position, according to city manager Jere Kersnar.
Christopher Blunt, owner of Ojai Solar Electric, a local solar panel installer, charges between $9,000 and $10,000 per kilowatt of solar energy. That means $20,000 to $40,000 for an average household using between two and four kilowatts, which can be reduced to between $13,000 and $26,000 with the $2.50 per watt state rebate, according to Blunt.
He recently installed a solar electric system in the approximately 16,000 square foot Ojai home of actor Larry Hagman.
Blunt’s company does not offer financing, nor do any other solar panel installers he knows of. But not everyone has good credit or can afford to pay a substantial down payment.
Next week Berkeley’s City Council will vote on a proposal which includes financing the cost of solar panels for property owners who can pay the city back in installments over a 20-year period, with no down payment. If the program works for Berkeley, Ojai could consider following in its footsteps one day.
For now, Ojai should be prudent and replenish its depleted reserve fund, before investing in any programs other than the most essential, according to Kersnar.
“Any time I am talking about public money I tend to be very conservative,” he said. “I prefer all the beta testing be done in other cities. I know that means we are not going to be innovative but you have less exposure to risks..”
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad agreed. “I would certainly support such incentives,” she said. “But probably on a smaller scale. I don’t think that the city has the funds to finance every home that wants to install solar panels.”
Cisco DeVries, assistant to Berkeley’s Mayor Tom Bates, explained that the actual program being considered for Berkeley wouldn’t actually cost the city, but rather serve as a go-between to help property owners afford the solar technology.
According to the plan the city would finance the installation of panels for about 25 homes to begin with and issue a bond of about $500,000 to pay the installers up front. The property owners would, in turn, pay the city back in installments, with a low interest rate. Once established, the program would be expected to sustain itself, said Alice La Pierre, Berkeley’s building science specialist.
Ojai still couldn’t jump on the bandwagon just yet even with its budget completely intact, because it is not a charter city, according to DeVries. While charter cities are able to do essentially anything the state has not told them they can’t, general law cities need authorization from the state for such a program to be put in place.
A year ago several of Ojai’s community leaders formed the Green Coalition with hopes of propelling Ojai into an environmental leadership position, setting environmental standards for other communities throughout the country and eventually the world.
But if the city can’t help people afford it now, some banks have already begun to do so.
Ojai Community Bank recently approved a program that offers favorable rates on loans for customers looking to install solar panels. Rates vary according to the situation and the recipient. But for some customers, the bank would consider issuing a loan with no down payment at all, said Shari Skinner, CEO and president of the bank.
“It’s something we really support,” she said.