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Monday, Mar 10 2014 05:54 PM

County flips switch on energy-efficient financing

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Solar panels cover almost the entire western exposure of this house in southwest Bakersfield.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Homeowners in unincorporated Kern could be able to turn down the dimmer on their power bills, under a new finance program that began Monday.

Home Energy Renovation Opportunity, headquartered in San Diego, is the latest of several so-called Property Assessed Clean Energy programs statewide.

These are designed to let homeowners beat monthly energy bills with energy-efficient upgrades ranging from new weatherstripping to solar panels, paying on their property tax -- and, officials say, coming out ahead.

A HERO official said the company has successfully financed $170 million worth of home renovations in 125 California cities since 2011. That's saved homeowners an estimated $383 million in energy costs.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors voted in October to join HERO. Its program went live Monday, letting approved contractors contact county residents about work.

Taft and Ridgecrest will be joining in upcoming weeks -- but not Bakersfield.

City officials have taken a wait-and-see attitude, citing statements of concern from the Federal Housing Finance Association because PACE terms put its loans ahead of mortgage lenders in the event of a default.

In 2011, FHFA prohibited federal home loan banks Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from buying any mortgage loans with first-lien PACE obligations.

FHFA's statements continue to cast a pall over PACE programs statewide including two, CaliforniaFIRST and Figtree, that Bakersfield already offers its residents.

As a result, neither of the programs available in the city finances energy-efficient upgrades for residential property owners.

An FHFA spokeswoman did not respond to questions sent by email Monday.

"They were moving forward with that but then (FHFA) said 'Thou shalt have no other loans before ours,'" said Kern County Administrative Analyst Allan Krauter. "We're pleased because it's about saving money on your energy bill and local employment. It gives contractors another tool with which to approach homeowners."

Ridgecrest Mayor Chip Holloway agreed.

"I just saw it as pretty much a win-win program, and it would do a disservice to both contractors and residents not to have it available," Holloway said, adding that Ridgecrest scrutinized HERO details for about six months before joining.

A Taft official said the program won't unduly burden residents.

"They're not in the business of trying to get people in over their heads," said Christy Lowe, an administrative technician for Taft, who helped bring the matter to the Taft City Council. "It isn't like you're borrowing $20,000 against your property tax."

Major renovations could top that.

Mark DeVries, CEO of One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning in Bakersfield, said Tuesday his company -- a HERO-approved contractor -- was working on its first job under the new program, to install new roofing and air conditioning in a home on county land.

The cost? About $36,000.

"It's a great thing. It could probably, I'm guessing we're going to do around $3 million through HERO this year. It's going to be huge," DeVries said.

HERO Director of Municipal Development Dustin Reilich said the "normal" homeowner finances $18,000 in improvements, which adds about $180 to their property tax per month, over 15 to 20 years.

Reilich estimated a $36,000 loan -- which he said would be extended over an even longer term -- could cost a homeowner $1,900 to $2,000 additional every six months.

"You have to look at the whole picture. Reilich said. "We've had homeowners that decide to go solar and save themselves $800 a month on their utility bill because they zeroed out their bill."

A new state PACE Loss Reserve program would use $10 million in state funds to pay portions of PACE first-lien loans in default. It could clear state review this week.

Assistant to the City Manager Steve Teglia said he was hopeful the program could change the FHFA's mind.

"We're going to kind of see how that plays out," Teglia said. "If all things go according to the plan of the governor's office, this could spur resurgence of residential PACE throughout the state."

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