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Local government can help pay for solar panels

By Matthew Yi, San Francisco Chronicle

Homeowners and business owners who can’t afford the high-cost of installing solar panels to help them cut their electricity bills may get help from their local governments under a bill that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law this week.

The legislation, AB811, allows cities and counties to offer low-interest financing to residents and business owners who want to make energy improvements such as installing solar panels or replacing air conditioning or heating units with energy-efficient models. The loans would be repaid on their annual property tax bills.

The measure, signed Monday, goes into effect immediately.

“You can’t open a newspaper these days or turn on television and not see news that the price of energy is going up,” said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys (Los Angeles County), who authored the legislation. “This helps cities and counties to provide benefits to their residents to help cut energy usage.”

Levine added that such programs would help California meet its ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020.

The measure was inspired in part by a proposal in Berkeley, where city officials are working on a program for the city to pay for solar-power systems and their installation, and would add a 20-year assessment to the property owner’s tax bill for repayment.

San Francisco, which already has a rebate program for solar panels, is considering a similar program.

But without the state law, not all cities in California would be able to institute such programs. Charter cities, such as Berkeley and San Francisco, have supreme authority over municipal affairs, while general law cities are bound by state laws that govern those same issues. Of the state’s 478 cities, 370 are general law.

AB811 allows such cities to offer low-interest loans for energy-efficiency improvements on private property.

The new law doesn’t specify how cities and counties should shape their programs.

Jim Ferguson, a city councilman in Palm Desert (Riverside County), said “the phone has been ringing off the hook at city hall since the governor signed the bill into law.”

His city of 50,000 residents, located about 120 miles east of Los Angeles, is considering using $2 million of its general fund money to jump-start a financing program and eventually issue $15 million in bonds to raise more capital.

With temperatures routinely exceeding 120 degrees during summer months, Palm Desert residents would realize a net savings because the additional taxes they would pay for solar systems would be less than the amount they pay on electricity bills, particularly during the summer, Ferguson said.

“We could go for weeks above 100 degrees. We’re hot, needless to say,” he said.

But not everyone’s enthused about the notion of government getting into the business of financing loans.

“I just think that it’s way out of bounds for local government to use its tax authority to help people make improvements with their homes,” said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine. “If it makes economic sense for people to put photovoltaic (panels) on their roofs, a bank should be able to finance that.”

(read online version)

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