County may join state’s ‘green’ loan program

Despite initial misgivings about the cost, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took a step toward joining a state loan program that would provide long-term loans to homeowners and businesses to install solar panels, improve window and wall insulation, and otherwise increase their energy efficiency.

Putting such a program in place, Supervisor Adam Hill said, would create jobs. “I don’t really see any downside,” Hill said. “It’s going to help a lot of local contractors.”

Other supervisors agreed, adding that joining the pilot program would make the county part of a statewide effort to decrease energy waste.

Supervisors instructed their staff to pursue involvement with the California FIRST program, which is seeking to implement the energy-saving AB 811, passed last year, on a statewide basis.

The ultimate goal is to implement it in San Luis Obispo County, possibly beginning as early as next summer. As part of that, the county will work with cities.

There was hesitation at first because of high bond interest rates. County Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach pointed out that, at present, a homeowner could get a better rate on a home interest loan.

“The way the CA FIRST AB 811 program would work,” Dan Buckshi of the county administrative office wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune, “is that bonds would be issued in order to provide a pool of money to program applicants.”

“More specifically, if a homeowner wanted to install a solar system on his or her house that cost $50,000, he or she would apply for a loan through the CA FIRST program,” he wrote.

The county (or any other counties or cities participating in the CA FIRST program) would not issue any bonds and would not incur any financial liability, he wrote.

Supervisor Jim Patterson noted that rates could come back down, adding that the longer payback period under AB 811 would help people who couldn’t afford the quick turnaround on a home interest loan.

The likely payback rate depends, according to Buckshi, “upon the actual financing rate (i.e. the actual bond rates), the type of upgrade, and the climate (i.e. current electric and gas bills).”

“For example,” he wrote, “a solar installation for a house built in 2005 in Morro Bay would likely have a much longer payback period as compared to a project to replace windows in a house built in 1975 in Paso Robles.”

The county will work out the mechanics of implementing the program as it goes forward.

Support from the audience was unanimous. Patricia Wilmore of PG&E said the utility is solidly behind the program. Jerry Bunin of the Homebuilders Association of the Central Coast also backed it.

One county, Sonoma, and two cities, Berkeley and Palm Desert, are going it alone in implementing AB 811.

CA FIRST is administered by California Communities, which is a joint powers authority between the California Association of Counties and the California League of Cities.

It has existed for more than 20 years, and its primary purpose is to provide municipal financing options for local governments (i.e. bond issuance), according to Buckshi.