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Sonoma County is a hot spot for solar power, ranking sixth among 58 California counties for home and commercial solar projects, according to new state data.

In fact, solar is expanding so quickly that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. can't keep up with the demand. Getting new solar energy systems connected to PG&E's power grid takes an average three to four weeks, and sometimes as long as six weeks.

The solar movement appears to be growing despite the slow economy, which has made financing more difficult.

Tax incentives and lower-cost technology are key to the growth, said Sue Kately of the California Solar Energy Industries Association.

"We've been able to do jobs despite the recession," she said.

There's also a Sonoma County mindset that favors alternative energy, said Tom Danaher, solar manager at Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol, one of the area's original solar vendors.

"People here are concerned about climate change, the power mix and the behavior of utilities," he said.

Sonoma County has 33 megawatts of solar capacity installed or in development, ahead of larger counties such as Alameda, Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Stanislaus, according to the Public Utilities Commission.

Santa Rosa is the state's seventh most solar-powered city, based on data from the California Solar Initiative, the $2 billion rebate program for customers of the state's investor-owned utilities.

Santa Rosa has almost 11 megawatts of solar capacity installed or under construction.

"You definitely stand out," said Molly Tirpak Sterkel of the Public Utilities Commission.

For Gary Vuchinich of Cloverdale, the decision to go solar was easy. "We've been looking at this for years," he said.

Sun-drenched Cloverdale is the ideal location for solar, said Vuchinich, an emergency medical consultant. "The technology at this point is as good as it's going be for a while."

He also was spurred by Sonoma County's Energy Independence Program — or SCEIP — which lets owners finance energy-saving improvements through a property tax assessment.

"That's a great program," said Vuchinich, who paid about $19,000 after a rebate for his 3.6-kilowatt system. The system now provides most of his home's electric power.

Still, Vuchinich had a problem getting the system hooked up to PG&E's grid when it was completed last month.

After hearing it could take six weeks, he went into action, contacting the PUC, his congressman and state assemblyman. As a result, PG&E connected his system to its meter in just over two weeks.

PUC has received other complaints about PG&E delays in connecting solar to its grid, Sterkel said. "We know they're behind and working to catch up," she said. "It's definitely something we're monitoring."

PG&E wasn't prepared for a surge of hookup requests this year. It's now taking an average three to four weeks, compared with a week or 10 days under normal conditions.

PG&E is making changes to address the problem, said company spokesman Denny Boyles. "We're looking at the process and adding some manpower to help," he said.

Homeowners aren't the only ones tapping sun power. Wineries, government agencies, technology companies and other businesses also are adding solar panels.

Agilent, Santa Rosa's largest tech employer, has 3,500 solar panels covering three acres and generating more than 1 megawatt.

Meanwhile, the county's first-of-its-kind renewable energy financing program is continuing to attract borrowers, despite concerns from the Federal Housing Finance Agency that it poses financial risks.

SCEIP has financed 790 solar projects since it was launched in 2009, said spokeswoman Diane Lesko.

The county briefly halted the program this past July when the federal agency adopted stricter lending rules for residential borrowers.

Under the new guidelines, some property owners could have trouble refinancing a mortgage or selling a house. Commercial solar isn't affected by the federal crackdown.

SCEIP has reopened, and the county is trying to resolve its differences with federal regulators. Still, participation is down about 40 percent from the first half of the year.

Solar contractors and installers said the county financing program spurred business, and they hope the federal government will ease its restrictions.

"It would be great if SCEIP gets back in the ballgame," said Jeff Mathias of Synergy Solar & Electrical Systems in Sebastopol.

The program accounted for 80 percent of Synergy's solar jobs before the federal crackdown. Now it's 40 or 50 percent, Mathias said.

"When SCEIP first came in there was a surge, but it's leveled off," said John Parry of SolarWorks in Sebastopol. "We're seeing it pick up again."

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or steve.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

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