Clean energy is more than a snappy catch phrase; it's a real possibility because of the new Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, which the county Board of Supervisors launched on Wednesday.

The first countywide program of its kind in the state, the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, helps residential and commercial property owners decrease their utility and water bills and increase their access to clean power by installing renewable generation systems such as solar in a process known as an energy retrofit.

The county program is made possible by Assembly Bill 811, which created a new municipal financing structure in July to support local climate protection efforts and help property owners overcome the upfront-cost barrier to energy-efficiency improvements and clean energy.

Under this program, property owners may finance efficiency and renewable improvements that are permanently affixed to their residential or commercial property and then pay off the assessment over 20 years through their property tax bill.

The key to achieving a cost-effective energy retrofit is the "first reduce, then produce" principle, which means first consider energy efficiency and then add renewable generation via solar electric and hot water systems.

For example, a homeowner could "tighten up" his or her home by upgrading or repairing their heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, insulate the walls and attic, and seal all the leaky aspects of their home's construction. This is the "reduce" portion of the principle. They could then add a small solar system to produce clean electricity and conceivably lower their electric bill $150 to $200 per month. A ballpark cost for this type of project would be around $20,000 after solar rebates. The cost savings could easily equal or surpass the cost of the improvements.

Understanding how a property wastes energy means evaluating all of its systems, determining what needs repair or retrofit and, just as importantl, selecting the order in which the actions should be made to yield maximum energy savings. This is achieved with an energy analysis.

An energy analysis identifies inefficiencies such as air leaks in the walls, floor, duct system and ceiling; areas of poor or missing insulation; and old, inefficient heating/cooling equipment, appliances and lighting fixtures.

Data collected about a home or building and its equipment are analyzed by energy modeling software that provides an estimate of the energy savings for each recommended efficiency upgrade. This information helps the property owner make an informed and appropriate decision about financing and which improvements to do first.

Energy analysis services are available through the state-certified Home Energy Rating System (HERS) and for commercial/industrial buildings through a variety of programs sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

In addition to an energy analysis, property owners may obtain an analysis of their water use. Delivering water to homes and businesses and then treating it after it goes down the drain, comprises the single largest use of energy in Sonoma County.

Making smart decisions regarding water use and making water efficiency improvements saves both water and energy.

Many local water providers offer free on-site water conservation surveys to help property owners assess water efficiency measures.

Although the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program is not requiring a home energy or water audit as a condition of participating in the county's program, we know that the more information a property owner has, the more effective use of limited resources they will make.

Energy audits are required for commercial properties to qualify for solar and efficiency incentives. The cost of a residential energy analysis can be included in the county financing.

The Sonoma County Energy Independence Program recommends that cost-conscious, energy-wise homeowners use the energy analysis as a first step to ensure the most cost savings for their energy retrofit dollars.

Information about the SCEIP is available at sonomacountyenergy.org.

-- Paul Kelley is chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Craig Carlock is chairman of Solar Sonoma County.