Going green was the theme, but the incentive at Saturday's Solar Fair in Santa Rosa was the financing available through a groundbreaking new program in Sonoma County.

The fair, which drew thousands to Finley Park, showcased solar electricity and other ways to cut energy and water use. About 100 booths covered the park's expansive lawn, including 30 set up by vendors of solar technologies.

But the buzz among those in attendance concerned the county government's offer to finance eligible improvements at 7 percent interest and to allow homeowners to repay the money over time as they pay their annual property tax bills.

"I'm interested in taking advantage of the new Sonoma County initiative," said Chris Muntzer of Santa Rosa.

A solar electric system sounded expensive, Muntzer said, but he figured he still could save enough money by replacing windows and repairing leaks from the heater air ducts.

"I'm thinking of doing the low-hanging fruit," he said.

In three months the county's new Energy Independence Program has drawn applications for projects totaling $8.5 million, said John Haig, the county's energy and sustainability manager.

The county and its Water Agency have provided $100 million for the financing program. Officials want to keep the effort alive as they seek to meet a goal set by the county and its cities: by 2015 to cut energy use here to 25 percent below 1990 levels.

"The hope is this is year one of a 20-year plan," Haig said.

Only Sonoma County and Boulder, Colo., have such financing programs in the United States, he said. More information is available at www.sonomacountyenergy.org.

The fair, sponsored by Solar Sonoma County and Pacific Gas & Electric, featured a number of workshops and panel discussions.

Lawmakers and activists talked Saturday about new legislative efforts, including the push for solar electric producers to actually receive cash for their surplus energy.

Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, led a discussion on "finding a green job in the new economy."

Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin urged people to look beyond solar electric systems to other ways to cut energy. She said she had an energy audit done for her 18-year-old home and found "leakages all over that house," in air ducts and other places.

"Think about what else you can do before you go to the solar panels," Gorin said.

Joanne and David Sharon, who live outside Portland, Ore., came to the fair partly to visit the booth of Solar Craft, the Novato company that will be installing solar panels atop their soon-to-be-completed home near Middletown.

Lake County residents aren't eligible for the Sonoma County financing, but the Sharons were impressed by the program.

I thought, 'Wow, that is really super,' " David Sharon said.

The Sharons have designed their home to stay cool without air conditioning in warm Lake County. It will feature covered porches and a system using fans to draw warm air out of the home and attic.

But Joanne Sharon said everyone can find ways to cut energy use.

"You just have to put a little thought into it," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here