Sonoma County energy loan program gets state money -- and restrictions

A $2.5 million state grant to Sonoma County highlights the innovation brought by the county's energy financing program, but it will impose restrictions on loans to property owners.

The funding from the state Energy Commission — one of only five such grants in the state — will position the county's Energy Independence Program to become a model for other governments. It encourages property owners to cut energy use by installing solar panels, more efficient windows and better insulation.

But later this year, property owners looking for county-backed loans on energy saving projects will face restrictions that applicants did not encounter in the first year of the program. Chief among them will be a required audit to find whether the retrofit work actually will cut energy use.

"If somebody is going to ask for a solar unit, they will need to show that they will achieve a 10 percent reduction in energy use," said John Haig of the county's General Services Department. "This helps homeowners to get a full picture of the energy efficiency modifications they should be making."

During the program's first year, county supervisors were reluctant to require energy audits of homeowners because, at a cost of about $600, they were seen as discouraging home improvement projects costing less than $20,000.

But advocates of audits argued that the loan program was of little value for homeowners and contractors unless it could be shown the energy retrofit work would deliver benefits to the environment.

Haig said county officials intend to use some of the state grant to subsidize audit costs but have not yet determined a formula. Funding also will be used for public outreach efforts and water conservation programs, he said.

Other changes include:

<BL@199,12,11,10>Putting a cap on loans by mandating that the sum of all property liens plus project costs not exceed 110 percent of the property's assessed or market value, whichever is greater. Previously, there was no limit. When this restriction was imposed in early February, county officials said 20 pending project applications were rejected.

<BL@199,12,11,10>Requiring upfront payment of deed recording and title search fees, which can reach almost $200. Withdrawal of applications after the paperwork has been completed has cost the county about $20,000, county officials estimated.

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