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Sonoma County embraces solar power

  • West Coast Solar Energy worker Sam Epperson finishes his day after he and coworkers install a solar array on the roof of Merry Edward Winery, Wednesday jan. 25, 2012 in Sebastopol. Sonoma County cities rank in the top for solar energy. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

You might not realize it on a foggy winter morning, but Sonoma County cities are really soaking in the sun.

A new study shows the county has one of the highest concentrations of solar energy users in the state.

Santa Rosa alone generates more solar power than all but eight of the more than 700 communities across the state studied by Environment California, an environmental advocacy group.

Though just the 26th largest city in California by population, Santa Rosa's 14 megawatts of capacity place it in front of such larger locales as Anaheim, Riverside, Long Beach and Oakland.

And Santa Rosa isn't alone. The entire region has a remarkably high concentration of solar energy units, a reflection of a renewable energy ethos ingrained deep within its residents, according to those in the solar industry.

"They're greener," said Linda Tolliver, sales manager at Solar Works in Sebastopol, which has been in business for 26 years.

As well, the county's solar market has received a big boost from concerted public and private efforts, most prominently a groundbreaking way to finance projects.

The Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, the first such countywide program in the nation, has financed $54 million worth of solar and other energy-saving projects in less than three years.

The program, which allows homeowners to place the debt for such projects on their property tax bills, is widely credited for providing a new means of paying for solar systems, which can easily exceed $20,000 in upfront costs. But in recent months new rules have dramatically slowed the program's solar projects, and many homeowners instead are turning to a new approach: leasing rather than buying solar systems.

Despite the program's recent slowdown in new installations, the state's solar market is growing at a pace of up to 40 percent annually, according to Environment California.

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