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When the Petler family of Sebastopol sought relief from high utility bills, they covered the south-facing roof of their house on Western Avenue in solar panels.

Now, one set of panels heats water and the others store energy in batteries from which electricity can be summoned.

?In summer, there are a few months when we actually sell power back to the company,? said Scott Petler, who installed the first panels himself in 2002. ?I used to watch the meter go backwards when I was obsessed with checking how much we were saving.?

And when Stefan Klakovich, an environmental studies teacher at Windsor High School, was looking to gain some room in his crowded garage, he replaced his big white cylinder with a tankless water heater that produces hot water on demand.

?You can?t run two showers at the same time and expect hot water, but you save money by not having a unit constantly heating water when you don?t need it,? he said.

When ? and if ? a Sonoma County program to loan homeowners money for installing energy-saving devices gets going, officials are going to be hot after more people like Petler and Klakovich

The county is cobbling together an innovative program ? possibly the first in the country ? that would lend homeowners money for installing energy-saving technologies such as solar photovoltaic units, solar thermal devices, tankless water heaters and even double-paned windows.

?This is a key action program to implement cost-saving energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation projects,? said board chairman Paul Kelley, who along with Supervisor Valerie Brown has been championing the program.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the proposed program brings a creative approach to financing residential and commercial loans for energy-saving measures.

Lending people money to ?green up their properties? would boost energy conservation and the economy, Thompson said. He was instrumental in securing tax credits for manufacturers of solar panels, windmills, and other green energy technologies as part of the national economic stimulus package, which contains $2.4 billion in Department of Energy funding.

The next step is to encourage people to buy that technology, and Thompson said he will work to gain tax-exempt status for a bond sale proposed by the county. That could knock a percentage point off the cost of the money, making the program more attractive to residents and to bond buyers, experts said.

The stumbling block is the ability of county government to secure money so funds can be loaned to home and business owners. During the nation?s financial crisis, credit markets have tightened up while lending institutions hoard money rather than loan it out.

County Controller Rod Dole said he is working on several options that he will outline to county supervisors on March 3.

The Sonoma County Water Agency is committing $72 million and the county treasury can pledge $45 million under provisions of state law AB 811, which permits creation of energy programs that issue loan notes.

If county supervisors approve the funding mechanism for the Energy Independence Program, Dole said it could begin as early as March 24.

Under the legislation approved last year, the program would issue notes to the county treasury at a rate above what the treasury earns through investments. Then it would loan money to participants at a slightly higher interest rate and repayment would occur through property tax payments. The loan cost would be transferred to new home owners if the property is sold.

?It is exciting but the risks are real and the bond market has dried up,? Dole said. ?Hopefully, this will create jobs and it will help this community to move forward.?

County officials said energy-saving installations in homes and businesses would help achieve greenhouse gas emission reduction goals and would help cut water consumption during drought.

To earn enough profit to fund administrative costs, Supervisor Efren Carrillo said it likely would take from 230 to 250 projects, ranging from $16,000 to $22,000 each, for the program ?just to be self-sufficient.?

County officials said the program also would have to overcome possible objections from mortgage companies and property owners with reservations about property tax obligations that would be transferred to subsequent buyers.

And they said the county will have to reach agreements with city governments so that the program extends to residents and businesses in incorporated areas.

So far, Dole said, eight of the nine cities in the county have agreed to participate, with the Cloverdale council scheduled to take up the issue on Tuesday. Feb. 24.

You can reach Staff Writer Bleys W. Rose at 521-5431 or bleys.rose@pressdemocrat.com.