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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.

"What were finding now is solar is really taking hold all across the state," said spokeswoman Michelle Kinman.

In the report, Sebastopol ranked first for the number of solar installations in towns of less than 10,000.

Sonoma ranked first in per capita capacity for cities between 10,000 and 50,000. Healdsburg ranked fourth.

For cities above 50,000, Petaluma ranked fifth in terms of per capita solar capacity.

Santa Rosa ranked 10th in that category. The city has solar installations on nearly 1,500 homes, businesses and government buildings.

Solar installers credit local groups like Solar Sebastopol, the precursor to the nonprofit Solar Sonoma County, for helping promote solar's benefits as a viable way of cutting energy bills.

Homeowners still need to determine that the system's size and financing are right for their needs, but they don't question whether solar will provide reliable, clean energy, said Jeff Mathias, co-owner and chief financial officer for Synergy Solar in Sebastopol.

"You don't have to sell solar," Mathias said.

Business people also have seen the benefits, especially due to government incentives that help cut the cost. Among them is winemaker Merry Edwards, who is expanding the existing solar system on her namesake winery north of Sebastopol.

"You have something that's good for the environment and creates jobs and encourages people to make a good economic decision," said Edwards, whose system now is rated at 150 kilowatts.

A 1,000-kilowatt system typically is enough to meet the demand of 750 to 1,000 homes, though solar systems can't satisfy as many because they don't produce electricity when the sun goes down.

Two years ago residents began turning to new ways of financing solar after the county's energy independence program ran afoul of federal housing officials. Those officials objected that debt from the energy upgrades gets paid off in foreclosure auctions before the home's principal mortgage, increasing the risk to federally-insured home lenders.

Even more residential solar buyers have looked elsewhere since July when the local program put new rules in place designed to increase energy savings. The rules, linked to a federal grant, essentially require a homeowner to achieve a 10 percent cut in energy use before he or she can qualify for financing a solar system.

In the fourth quarter, the energy program had only 22 new solar installations, compared to 103 for the same period in 2010.

County officials said there were other factors contributing to the drop, but installers agreed that the 10 percent rule turned off lots of consumers, including those who owned newer energy-efficient homes or who already had made improvements to cut utility bills.

"It's difficult to get somebody to reduce it 10 percent when they've already reduced it 40 percent," said Jerry Shafer, owner of Affinity Solar Energy in Windsor.

Instead, many owners have turned to various forms of leasing the solar system installed on their roofs. Some lease for seven years, others for 20. When the lease ends, they can renew it, buy the system or have it removed.

Several installers said the use of leases has increased dramatically in the last year or two. The California Solar Initiative, a rebate program overseen by the state, reports that 31 percent of its solar systems involve leases.

The federal grant for the energy independence program ends in March and county supervisors will consider ways to adapt the rules, though not likely to remove the requirement on boosting energy efficiency, officials said.

The county has hired Solar Sonoma County to help explore ways to adapt the program "so it's more user-friendly," said Alison Healy, the nonprofit's executive director. The group's Clean Energy Advocates program also helps residents consider whether solar makes sense for them and what financing options to consider.

Shirlee Zane, chairwoman for the Board of Supervisors, said the program remains an important way to improve energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and it continues to attract attention in the movement known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE.

"Everybody knows Sonoma County has had the most aggressive PACE program in the nation," Zane said.

Nate Gulbransen, president of Westcoast Solar Energy in Rohnert Park, said the county program still offers an important option for homeowners who want to buy rather than lease their solar systems. And while he didn't always think so, he maintained the 10 percent rule has been "great for the consumer" because the resulting audits can uncover needlessly wasteful energy use.

Many agreed that other communities will draw lessons from how Sonoma County sets its rules.

"The whole country is watching us," said Gulbransen.

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