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New one-stop Advanced Energy Center offers a glimpse at a greener home and the path to getting there

A storefront that opened last month on downtown Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street isn’t peddling merchandise or beckoning customers in for a meal or beverage.

The folks there are pushing the opportunity to live a more energy-efficient life and offering help in making that transition.

But they’re also marketing something more subtle: the chance to feel empowered to take action in the face of accelerating climate change.

“This facility is about giving people hope,” said Geof Syphers, chief executive officer of Sonoma Clean Power. “There are things you can do that are not that difficult, that can also save you money.”

Syphers, spoke Wednesday at the agency’s new Advanced Energy Center, which was developed with a $9.8 million grant from the California Energy Commission. The site is an exhibition and demonstration center, training hub and referral office rolled into one.

Visitors can browse displays and exhibits on energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, electric induction cooktops, heat pump water heaters, radiant wall and floor heating systems, electric chargers and batteries, and other technologies.

The center offers classes to help homeowners and contractors learn how to work low-carbon technologies and appliances into their remodels, and also provides assistance identifying installers. Customers can also learn how to secure financial incentives and affordable financing where it’s available

Staff members also can help consumers understand how technologies that look expensive to start can often pay for themselves pretty fast.

The goal is to lower barriers to greater energy efficiency for all income levels and make it less intimidating, as well.

“A lot of this is about getting people to ask questions and giving us an opportunity to tell them about it,” Syphers said.

Syphers recalled a resident of Cloverdale, known for its high summer temperatures, exclaiming about how he cut his power bill in half after installing a more efficient heating and cooling system.

Syphers suggested the man host a party and tell his friends all about it.

“This is what we really want,” said Kate Kelly, director of public relations and marketing for Sonoma Clean Power, “is for people to engage with us.”

Built in the former home of the Stanroy Music Center near Fourth and E streets (the music store has since moved), the Advanced Energy Center grew out of a program created by the public electricity provider in the aftermath of the 2017 North Bay fires, which destroyed 5,334 homes in Sonoma County, Kelly said.

The Advanced Energy Rebuild Program allowed participants to earn up to $17,500 for increased energy efficiency in their new homes and was first used by Pacific Gas & Electric in the town of Paradise, which was destroyed by fire in 2018.

The Advanced Energy Center is the next step in expanding the use of renewable energy to regional constituents using a model that can be replicated elsewhere.

The center is funded by a grant from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge Program, which promotes the expanded use of renewable energy and the advancement of electric technologies in buildings, businesses and transportation.

“What Sonoma Clean Power is doing with the Advanced Energy Center is a bold and groundbreaking model for others,” CEC Chair David Hochschild said in a news release. “The Energy Commission is proud to support this effort to bring the climate-friendly cooking experience and new construction technologies directly to interested Californians. This type of education and awareness is critical as the state doubles down on reducing emissions from buildings by using clean energy to power more things.”

Sonoma Clean Power, launched in 2014, is now one of 23 community choice energy providers in California that offer more renewable, locally sourced alternatives to their customers, delivered through PG&E equipment. Its efforts have also been focused on advancing clean technologies through incentive programs to help encourage early adopters to get on board.

The utility offered incentives for electric vehicle purchases for several years, until there were more on the market and a critical mass of people buying them, Syphers said. Then the focus shifted to offering charging stations to encourage latecomers.

Now the emphasis on the transition to greener homes and assistance in making that transition.

Where there has been news on municipal efforts to ban natural gas in new construction in various cities, for instance, much of the negative reaction comes from gourmets reluctant to forgo gas cooktops — mostly because they think electric means the 1950s-style coil burners.

At the new center, they can borrow burners or watch demonstrations that show how quickly and cleanly the induction burners work, Syphers and Kelly said.

The new site held a soft opening in June and is slowly filling in exhibits, with about 25% of the way still to go, Syphers said. Training is also just moving from online to in-person.

A grand opening is scheduled for November, but so far about 20 people a day have wandered in, mostly early adopters, curious passersby or people waiting for a table to open up at the nearby brew pub.

Among those who came in this week were Dustin St. John and his father, David, who also is the contractor for a new house his son is building in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park.

They bought the first lot sold after the 2017 Tubbs fire and had decided to use low-carbon technologies in the rebuild.

“And then we found this class to do it,” Dustin St. John said while admiring conceptual designs before his training session.

Syphers said he recognizes that it may take time to fine-tune the facility’s operations and its mission, and to understand exactly what it means for it to be “a success.”

But Sonoma Clean Power is committed to the concept and the mission.

“We’re really clear this is a long game,” he said.

More information is available at scpadvancedenergycenter.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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